Dying King 1963 is a life-size bronze sculpture of an emaciated male figure balancing horizontally on his buttocks with his left arm raised above his head and the right arm positioned tightly across his abdomen. The figure, who is nude, appears to be falling backwards while attempting to defend himself from attack. The eyes and mouth of the form are closed and his face is turned towards the right. The surface of the work is made up of a variety of textures: the chest, underarm and left side are covered in large crevices and gouged surfaces, while the arms, hands and penis are more angular and flat. The sculpture is a deep mottled blue-grey colour with areas of dark green. It is signed ‘Frink’ on the right foot and stamped ‘A/C’ (artist’s cast), indicating that this was the artist’s version. The main edition of the work consisted of three casts.
Frink made Dying King in her studio at Park Walk in London’s Chelsea in 1962–3. She was photographed in the studio working on the plaster for Dying King in 1962 (see Elisabeth Frink Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné, Salisbury 1984, pp.42–3) and again in 1963 posing with a bronze cast of the work in an image taken by Lord Snowdon (Antony Armstrong Jones) for his Private View series of photographs of artists created and published in 1965. (Reproduced on the website Snowdon Review, http://www.snowdon-review.com/#/review/artists/, accessed 5 November 2015).
In a 1981 BBC television interview Frink explained the technique of ‘building up in plaster direct’ that she used to realise Dying King, a method first employed by artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Germaine Richier in France in the mid-1940s (Norman St John-Stevas and Elisabeth Frink, ‘Norman St John-Stevas in Conversation with Elisabeth Frink’, 1981, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXNSsq0cklk, accessed 5 November 2015). Frink started using the technique while still a student at Chelsea School of Art in London (1949–53) and was one of the first artists to employ it in England. She described it in 1981 as follows: ‘Rather than working in clay, one builds up in plaster of Paris direct on an armature and then it is cast into bronze … It’s very immediate, the fact that you can build up in five minutes and it’s hard and it’s there. You don’t have to make another cast before it goes to foundry and it is a material you can carve equally as well as model’ (Frink in St John-Stevas and Frink, accessed 5 November 2015). Frink achieved the distressed and scarred surfaces of Dying King by carving and cutting into the dry plaster using a rasp, a mallet and chisel before casting the work in bronze.
Frink focused almost exclusively on the male form within her work, and Dying King draws on archetypes expressing masculine strength, struggle and aggression. The work was inspired by a film of Shakespeare’s Richard III seen by the artist in 1962 in which, as Frink explained in 1994, he is ‘being killed in battle, stabbed to death as he put his arms up to fend his attackers off’ (quoted in Ratuszniak 2013, p.89). The work was also motivated by Frink’s ongoing preoccupation with medieval tomb figures – a series of which she was also studying in 1962 just prior to making Dying King. As the art historian Julian Spalding has noted, ‘Cruelty concerned [Frink] … Men’s natures were for her the cause of war. That was the real reason she sculpted them.’ Frink identified in the male form, especially the soldier, both strength and vulnerability, and as Spalding goes on to observe, ‘Men’s bodies gave her art not just its form but its all-absorbing themes. The relationships between strength and sensitivity, brutality and love, defence and openness and, most elusively of all, the relationship between life and death’ (Spalding 2013, pp.14–15).
The artist regarded Dying King as one of her ‘key pieces from the 1960s’ (quoted in Ratuszniak 2013, p.89) and the work has been exhibited widely, including in the controversial 1978 Arts Council Hayward Annual at the Hayward Gallery in London – the first Hayward Annual to be organised by women and showing predominantly women artists.
Annette Ratuszniak (ed.), Elisabeth Frink: Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture 1947–93, London 2013, reproduced p.89.
Julian Spalding, ‘Frink: Catching the Nature of Life’, in Annette Ratuszniak (ed.), Elisabeth Frink: Catalogue Raisonné of Sculpture 1947–93, London 2013, pp.9–25.
Supported by Christie’s.