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At either end of the Duveen Galleries you can see a sculpture made in response to events during the Cold War. Of particular significance was the civil war in Vietnam (1954-75), the most famous and most bloody of several ‘proxy wars’ fought between western powers and Communist regimes. Each artist addressed that situation in very different ways.

Though this gilded version of Leonard McComb’s Portrait of a Young Man Standing was made in 1983, the original version was completed in 1963. Its development was set against the backdrop of the Cold War: specifically, the rapid succession of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), President Kennedy’s assassination (1963) and the escalation of war in Vietnam. Concerned by these demonstrations of humankind’s destructive potential, McComb conceived the sculpture as a positive image of humanity. He has described it as an attempt ‘to create an image of a whole person, his physical and spiritual life being inseparably fused [and implying] the embedded capacity for powerful and gentle action, both physical and intellectual’. Later, McComb’s continuing concerns about the Cold War were combined with a sense that the individuality and inner life of people were being subjugated in the modern world.

February 2010