Geoffrey Clarke



Steel on aluminium base
Object: 410 x 425 x 208 mm, 8.7 kg
Purchased 1976

Display caption

This figure was made in a studio with a forge situated behind the Imperial College in South Kensington, using forging, oxyacetylene cutting and welding. It is a pair with a welded steel sculpture 'Man' of the same date. Common to both are prominent rib cages and raised arms. 'Woman' has vestigal breasts and the cup or chalice set on an altar before her represents an empty womb. 'Man' on the other hand has a more spiky rib-cage and a protective skirt of metal elements. The platform to which 'Woman' is joined was cut from the steel bottom of an oil storage tank. According to Clarke, the form of this pair, and a number of related small sculptures, originated from certain drawings by Picasso.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T02060 WOMAN 1953

Not inscribed
Welded steel, 12 7/8 × 9 1/2 × 6 5/8 (32.7 × 24.1 × 16.8)
Purchased from Taranman Ltd. (Knapping Fund) 1976
Prov: The artist
Exh: Young British Sculptors, Arts Club of Chicago, March 1955 (30, repr.), and tour to Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Toronto to February 1956; Geoffrey Clarke Early Engraved Work and Iron Sculpture, Taranman, June–July 1976 (29, repr.), dated 1952.
Lit: Walter Strachan, introduction to catalogue of Taranman exhibition, 1976, cited above.

In a letter dated 19 February 1978 from which all otherwise unspecified quotations in this entry are taken, Geoffrey Clarke recalled that ‘All my iron sculpture up to late’ 55 was made in an old Ministry of Works hut in their yard behind Imperial College-now a car park.

‘Technique - rough forging, oxyacetylene cutting, welding and building up. The ribs were bits from rods heavily eroded by a near explosive nitric mix I remember using - an eight foot long tank of the stuff - bright orange fumes etc. The platform came from large corroded sheets of steel whose origin was a Purfleet oil storage tank bottom.’

‘Woman’ was conceived by Clarke as the pair to his virtually same-size welded iron sculpture ‘Man’ 1953, which he made very shortly before. The principal features of these two sculptures are common to both - a low platform through which pass the work's two outer vertical elements each of which culminates in upraised, outstretched ‘arms’; the central vertical element from which, to left and right, spring the figure's ‘ribs’, and which is surmounted by a small ‘head’; and two other horizontal elements, shorter than the ribs, which spring to left and right from the central upright at ‘shoulder’ level. In each sculpture the central upright, unlike the two outer ones, rises from the platform rather than passing through it. The essential differences of design between ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ are that in ‘Woman’ the shorter horizontal elements terminate in breasts (being simply spikes in ‘Man’); that the ribs are straight in ‘Man’ and curved in ‘Woman’; that a chalice is set on the platform in front of the figure in ‘Woman’; and that in ‘Man’ numerous straight linear elements are arranged around the lower part of the central upright (from which they spring) in a tent-like configuration, although not all of them touch the platform beneath. 'Why Man has a grass skirt I don't remember. It is a shield/protection which...recurs [in his work]. In spite of the apparent superficiality it contributes primitive strength to the piece (which I believe to be a more powerful one than Woman).

‘I see man as a sculptural monument, as a sculptural house, a fortress, a field, a platform, a chapel. Much of my work has this kind of content (intent) in varying degrees, Man and Woman being more obvious than later pieces.

‘Woman was made for Man! (I like pairs and sets.) Breasts develop and there is a cup/ chalice/ receptacle/ empty womb on the altar awaiting the spirit, springing from the platform which recurs in my work’. For ‘Woman’, ‘I may have a drawing but at that time drawings (in form of monotypes) were rather sketchy. I found a great deal more graphic satisfaction in the aquatints. There were several pieces of iron in a similar vein but only one colour print relates (vaguely).

‘The work of that time began with the black and white aquatints in’ 49. These generally comprised man, his influences, surroundings and belief in an external force. The first sculptures were virtually iron versions. Typical the one in [the] Time Life [building in Bond Street, London]. I think probably they broke with the completely linear form with the series you have an example of’.

Referring to ‘Man’, ‘Woman’ and the approximately ten other works that share the same idiom, technique and basic imagery of anthropomorphic uprights on platforms (in some cases with chalices), Geoffrey Clarke explained that ‘this particular series of about twelve pieces originated I believe from joke drawings by Picasso, a form he didn't take seriously enough. To me the structure became important. Symbol of man as a monument was always compelling to me. Subsequent ideas man as a house, fortress, an altar followed, but these were what I would call sketch maquettes.’

The relatively figurative sculptures of the phase which included ‘Woman’ and comparable works incorporating platforms were followed by ‘the more abstract platforms intended for even more grand scale fulfilment’.

Amplifying these points in a letter of 25 June 1978, Geoffrey Clarke wrote that he could not remember where he had seen the joke drawings by Picasso. He believed the Tate's was the only one of his works of this period called ‘Woman’.

‘Woman’, ‘Man’ and another work called ‘Man’ (repr. Taranman exhibition catalogue 1976, op. cit. n.p.) were among a group of approximately twelve maquettes of similar idiom. Related to these were a group of some twelve ‘sketch maquettes where the idea of man was further abstracted’. Clarke hoped that when all these relatively small works had been completed one of them would be selected to be fabricated, by commission, on a much-enlarged scale. This did not happen, but ‘final size-site providing - would have been about 10’ conifers/rocks, to be come upon, i.e. visible 50 yards away, no more, probably less’.

Despite being part of a distinct group of maquettes, the Tate's ‘Woman’ and the ‘Man’ to which it most closely relates ‘stand apart...they are a pair and to be honest fractionally more decorative than most (the repetitive pattern of the ribs/skirt element has that effect at least). I wonder if it isn't an essential ingredient, a satisfaction demanded by some area of our receptivity, like the beat of a drum- a security or recognition of the next beat.’

In the introduction to the catalogue of Clarke's exhibition at Taranman in May–June 1975, Christopher Johnstone wrote that ‘even in his early welded sculpture he was not concerned with the changing visual apprehension of the sculpture from random viewpoints chosen by the spectator. The potency of his work lies in the image itself.’ Confirming this statement, Geoffrey Clarke adds ‘I rarely consider a sculpture in the round’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979