Catalogue entry

Bernard Meadows b.1915

Crab 1952

T03759

Bronze 155 x 90 x 110 (6 1/8 x 3 ½ x 4 3/8)

Transferred from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1983

Provenance:
Purchased from the artist by the Victoria and Albert Museum 1953

Exhibited († = unidentified cast, ‡ = other cast):
Bernard Meadows, Paul Rosenberg Gallery, New York 1959 (catalogue not found)

Literature:
R.H. Wilenski, Modern Movement in Art, London 1927, 4th ed. 1957, p.42, reproduced fig.64
J.R.M., ‘In the Galleries: Bernard Meadows’, Arts, vol.33, no.4, Jan. 1959, p.55
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, p.278
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, p.138, reproduced

Crab is a smaller version of a sculpture which, because it was acquired by Jesus College, Cambridge, was dubbed by the artist Large ‘Jesus’ Crab (Larger Spider Crab), 1954.[1] It is, therefore, listed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné by the longer title Maquette for ‘Jesus’ Crab (Smaller Spider Crab), 1954 (BM 27).


The two versions are among numerous workings of the theme which Meadows produced during the 1950s and returned to in the 1980s. The subject derived from the time he had spent stationed on the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean during World War Two. The islands were populated with a huge number of crabs of different species, some of which grew to over two feet in size. The artist said that this work was based upon a particular species which would gather on the beach in crowds of many thousands.[2] In zoological terms, the label ‘Spider crab’ can be applied to any species of the decapod family Majidae and these range in size from the 10mm wide Macropodia rostrata to the Macrocheira kaempferi that lives around Japan and can have a claw-span of 4m.


Meadows first exhibited a crab sculpture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in January 1952.[3] Two more were shown at the Venice Biennale later that year and one of these, Black Crab, 1951-2 (Tate Gallery T03409), became the artist’s best known work. It was on that occasion that Meadows’ work, along with that of the eight contemporaries with whom he showed, became cast within an Existentialist interpretative framework. Herbert Read, writing in the catalogue, seems to have been prompted by Meadows’ use of the crab motif to associate the new sculpture with T.S. Eliot’s expression of individual anxiety. He appropriated from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) the phrase ‘ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas’ to describe the sculptures as expressions of a common guilt, despair, defiance and fear.[4]


Crab, 1954 is more representational than Black Crab though, like the earlier work, the body of the creature encloses a void. Where the raised pincers of Black Crab are joined to form a semi-abstract sculptural form, in the much smaller Crab, 1952 one is raised in the air and remains recognisable. There is an anthropomorphic quality to the sinewy musculature of the raised ‘arm’ and this confirms the sculptor’s identification of his animal themes as ‘human substitutes ... vehicles expressing my feelings about human beings’.[5] It is not immediately clear whether the gesture is aggressive or defensive and one might see this ambiguity of potential cruelty and vulnerability as characteristic of Meadows’ use of the theme. The artist has said that he liked the sculpture to be seen and photographed with the face of the crab looking away from the viewer. This was for aesthetic reasons and so that it appeared to be fleeing.[6] This confirms his stated interest in the fear and vulnerability of apparently well-protected figures. ‘It may sound pretentious’, he said in 1992, ‘but it’s all about the human condition. The crabs, and the birds, and the armed figures, the pointing figures are all about fear ... it’s perhaps not fear, it’s vulnerability.[7]


This vulnerability and a sense of movement, which in turn invests the sculpture with vitality, is reinforced by the way the crab is poised on three points. That all three legs are angled in the same direction gives the composition formal tension and a feeling of verisimilitude in the way in which it echoes the sideways movement of the crab. Other casts of this work stand on a roughly cut triangular base to which the three legs are soldered. In 1998, the artist suggested that the base of the Tate’s cast had probably been lost, possibly while it was in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Circulation Department over a thirty year period (the department’s catalogue number remains inscribed on the back).[8] As the creature was attached to the base at a late stage, it is possible that some casts did not have one. That reproduced in the catalogue raisonné may be the original plaster as it is predominantly white, with the incised lines appearing dark in contrast. These lines appear to be designed to give the creature added expression but, where they radiate from the tips of the triangular forms at its front, they also perform a formal role. The incisions in the Tate’s bronze and the surface of its internal space bear a white material which looks like the investment left after casting. It was in fact added by the artist and, in 1987, he recalled that he had ‘used milk and whiting to achieve this effect’.[9] This crusty white skin has become loose in places, notably within the cavity of the crustacean’s body. In contrast, Meadows did not remember applying the red pigment which colours the seven small drill holes on the face of the crab.[10] He did not suggest, however, that they had been added by another hand. Another cast of the work did not have the white ‘skin’ applied and retained the brown colouring of the bronze.


The red-painted holes may be an early incidence of Meadows’ treatment of eyes, a theme which would become important in his work during the 1960s. The sub-title of Armed Bust: Two Eyes, 1965 (private collection)[11] identified the organic forms in polished bronze within it. It was, however, with Relief: Watchers, 1966 (private collection)[12] that Meadows hinted at the sense of paranoid anxiety that determined the works. The artist explained how the theme stemmed from his stay on the Cocos Islands. The islands, he said, were populated with,

frightening crawlies, crabs and spiders and to see half-way up one of the palm frond walls a black widow spider, and you look away and you look back and its gone, and you don’t know where ... that sort of set up of fear was the basis for a lot of the things that I did when I got back.[13]

It was not simply a question of the fear that stemmed from these creatures’ potentially fatal aggression, but the sense that they continued to watch you after they disappeared from your own sight.

One might identify in such works as Crab, then, a characteristic duality. While Meadows described them as symbolic representations of human frailty, they also have an aggressive potential. Such an apparent contradiction would later become a theme in his work with the advent of armoured human figures with which he explored the idea of vulnerability lying beneath the carapace that protects dictators and tycoons in their aggression. The small scale of this piece might, therefore, be seen to contribute to a sense of the vulnerability that undermines the crab’s aggressive morphology.

Chris Stephens
November 1998


[1] BM 28, reproduced in Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, p.138
[2] Interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[3] Young Sculptors, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, January-February 1952
[4] Herbert Read, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of Works by Sutherland, Wadsworth, Adams, Armitage, Butler, Chadwick, Clarke, Meadows, Moore, Paolozzi, Turnbull, British pavilion, XXVI Venice Biennale, 1952
[5] Quoted by Bryan Robertson, Recent Sculptures by Bernard Meadows, exhibition catalogue, Gimpel Fils, London 1959
[6] Conversation with Tate Gallery conservator, 20 January 1987, Tate Gallery conservation files
[7] Interview with Tamsyn Woollcombe, 1992, Artists’ Lives, Tate Gallery Archive TAV 415A
[8] Interview 8 October 1998
[9] Notes from a conversation with Tate Gallery conservator, Tate Gallery conservation files
[10] Ibid.
[11] BM 97, repr. Bowness 1995, p.75, pl.57
[12] BM 99, reprroduced ibid. p.144
[13] Interview, Woollcombe 1992