Catalogue entry

Bernard Meadows b.1915

Large Flat Bird 1957


Bronze on an integral bronze base 1110 x 695 x 360 (43 11/16 x 27 3/8 x 14 1/8)

Cast inscription ‘M’ [circled] on upper face of base, front left

Purchased from Mr Bayley through Mr and Mrs Ian Starr (Knapping Fund) 1997

Purchased from the artist by Mr Bayley, Manchester through Mr Ian Starr 1994

Exhibited († = unidentified cast, ‡ = other cast):
Sculpture 1850 and 1950, Holland Park, London, May-Sept. 1957 (22†, reproduced as Bird, 1956)
Bernard Meadows, Paul Rosenberg Gallery, New York 1959 (no catalogue found)
?IV Bienal do Museu de Artes Moderna de sao Paulo, September 1957 (19, as Grande Pássaro)
Beeldententoonstelling Floriade, Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen, Rotterdam, March-September 1960 (95†, reproduced)
Recent British Sculpture: Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Hubert Dalwood, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, British Council tour of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong 1961-4, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, April-June 1961, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, August-September, Winnipeg Art Gallery, September-October, Norman Mckenzie Art Gallery, Regina College, November, Art Gallery of Toronto, January-February 1962, Public Library and Art Museum, London, Ontario, February-March, Vancouver Art Gallery, March-April, Auckland Institute and Museum, July, Dominion Museum, Wellington, August-September, Otago Museum, Dunedin, October, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, November-December 1962, Western Australia Art Gallery, Perth, January-February 1963, National Gallery of Victoria, Melborne, July-August, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, September-October, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, November-December 1963, Newcastle War Memorial Cultural Centre, January 1964, Albert Hall, Canberra, February, Bridgestone Art Gallery, Tokyo and other Japanese venues, including Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, July-August, City Hall Art Gallery, Hong Kong, August-September 1964 (47‡)
Profile III: Englische Kunst der Gegenswart, Städtische Kunstgalerie, Bochum, April-June 1964 (104‡)
Nine Living British Sculptors, Lalit Kala Akademi/British Council tour of India 1965-6, Lalit Kala Akademi Gallery, Delhi, November-December 1965, Government College of Arts and Crafts, Calcutta, December, Rajaji Hall, Madras, January 1966, Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, February 1966 (31‡)
British Sculpture 1952-1962, North-West Arts Festival, Brooke Park Gallery, Londonderry, April 1967, Ulster Museum, Belfast, May-June (27†, as 1954)
Yedi Ingiliz Heykeltrasi (Seven British Sculptors): Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Hubert Dalwood, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, British Council & Turco-British Association tour, 1970, Ankara, Istanbul (22‡)
Forty Years of British Sculpture, British Council, 1982 (31‡, reproduced)
Bernard Meadows, Chapman Gallery, London 1989 (1†, reproduced)

J.R.M., ‘In the Galleries: Bernard Meadows’, Arts, vol.33, no.4, January 1959, p.55
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, pp.14, 47, reproduced pl.26

Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, London 1964, p.226, pl.260

Birds were a recurrent theme in Bernard Meadows’ work from 1950 when his earliest recorded sculpture was Cock, 1950 (private collection).[1] The theme was especially dominant in his output during the period 1955-60 and Large Flat Bird is one of the numerous works based on the idea of hysterical fowl. Like the other related works, such as Running Bird, 1957 (private collection),[2] Frightened Bird, 1958 (private collection)[3] and Fallen Bird, 1958 (British Council, on loan to Fundacion Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon)[4] the form of the sculpture reveals the artist’s close observation of nature while communicating a metaphorical meaning.

The bird consists of a broad, curved plate of bronze with a number of ribs, the most extreme of which extend through to the back of the bird. In the middle, from an assembly of rectilinear and fluid forms rises a long neck, interrupted half way up by a protruding ‘ruff’. This too is highly textured and ends in the gaping form of a mouth. The result is both dynamic and phallic. Despite the process of formal abstraction it has undergone, the subject of the sculpture remains clear. We are looking at a cockerel, its wings puffed out and its neck extended and strained as it crows skyward, its beak opened wide. This is a characteristic pose, although it is unclear whether the cry is a sign of fear, joy or desire. A combination of the bird’s morphology, the upward movement of the composition and the fluid surface quality of much of the bronze invests the piece with a sense of tension and anxiety appropriate to the artist’s description of such works as ‘hysterical chickens’.[5]

Meadows explained that his work was ‘all about the human condition. The crabs, and the birds, and the armed figures, the pointing figures, are all about fear ... perhaps not fear, it’s vulnerability’.[6] He went on to discuss such works as Large Flat Bird specifically. The sculptures of startled birds were not, he said, simply images of hysterical birds. Rather he used them ‘as a vehicle for people ... that same hysteria which people get when life gets on top of you ... all these birds ... have got things which human beings have got’.[7] Since Herbert Read’s introduction to the 1952 Venice Biennale, Meadows’ work had been cast in an Existentialist interpretative light.[8] While this was appropriate to the shared culture of anxiety that followed the end of the war and the advent of the Cold War, the sculptor’s statement reveals that he was concerned primarily with individual fears. Specifically, he was fascinated with the concept of threat and it was this that informed such depictions of vulnerability as this expression of hysteria.

The overall effect of the sculpture is enhanced by the fluid texture of the bronze that gives it a fleshiness in defiance of the nature of the metal. This is especially evident among the forms at the base of the neck, up its length and within the gaping mouth. It gives the neck the look of giblets and so adds a sense of corporeality. The effect was the result of the artist’s working practice. Rather than modelling in clay and casting a pattern in plaster, Meadows had adopted an Italian methodology which he had learnt from Anne Severs, a student at the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court who worked as an assistant to Marino Marini in Milan. She introduced him to the process whereby a sculpture was roughed out in plaster on an armature and, when this had dried, the final form was modelled in further plaster which was wet enough to be malleable but dry enough to adhere. When tacky, the plaster could be worked with a knife and with time could actually be carved.[9] The method thus combined the two fundamental sculptural processes - modelling and carving – and resulted in the distinctive combination of rigid rectilinear forms overlaid with fluid texturing.

The highly textured surface was important to much sculpture of the 1950s which repeatedly signalled a fascination with skin and texture. This was in contrast to the emphasis placed on mass and volume by the previous generation of sculptors. As a reaction against the more holistic work of Moore and Hepworth, this surface quality can be seen as parallel to the linear, hollowed appearance that Read had identified in much contemporary sculpture.[10] This aspect was evident in the work of many sculptors in Britain and Europe and its roots could be found in the obsessively worked figures of Alberto Giacometti. It cannot, however, be divorced from the importance placed upon surface texture in painting by the fascination with the matière of paint shown by artists associated with Tachisme and Abstract Expressionism. Surface texture in both media was an established signifier of subjectivity through its implication of the artist’s physical labour and presence in the work. Similarly, through the contemporary construction of artistic production as isolated creativity and pointless struggle, epitomised by Giacometti, the surface quality of the object became associated with a structure of meaning located within a broad understanding of Existentialism.

Thus, the production process and material detail of Large Flat Bird contribute to the intended meaning of the work as much as the subject does. The form adds further to an implicit anxiety that is reinforced by a sense of instability. The bird’s broad body rises above two thin legs and this contrast results in a sense of imbalance that was characteristic of much art in Britain during the 1950s. The sculpted figures of Kenneth Armitage and Hubert Dalwood, and William Scott’s painted equivalents, combined bulky torsos with legs which tapered to tiny ankles and this style may have derived from the weathered figures of the French sculptor Germaine Richier. The implication of their precarious stance, the continual possibility of their succumbing to gravity’s pull, may be associated with an aspect of 1950s culture which has been described by one cultural historian as, ‘that major contemporary thematic of illustrating the phenomenology of the body unsettled in space, barely coping with gravity and beset by implacable forces’.[11] This dimension is especially clearly demonstrated in a number of related works, the earliest being Fallen Bird, 1957 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington).[12] In these the sense of abject vulnerability is reinforced by an illusion of movement created by the arching form of the bird’s body and a similar dynamism is created by the upward strain of the neck in Large Flat Bird.

The thinness of the legs necessitated the strengthening of their attachment to the base, and underneath two steel bars are fastened to lumps of bronze beneath the feet. The sculpture as a whole has a thin brown patina but a wax coating, applied by the artist when he sold it in 1994,[13] gives it a denser colouring. Traces of investment, a residue from the casting process, remain in the crevices around the neck ruff and at the back and these have acquired a verdigris hue. There had also been some accretion of verdigris on the front of the wings and on the left-hand corner of the base. These sections, along with areas where the patina had been worn to reveal bare metal (notably the head), had been covered by Meadows with black boot polish. On acquisition by the Tate Gallery some small paint marks were removed and other marks on the base were toned with acrylic paint.[14]

Though the catalogue raisonné of Meadows’ sculptures attributes an edition of six plus one to Large Flat Bird, the artist told the Tate Gallery that there were only three. The Tate’s was the last and was cast at the Royal College of Art, where the artist had established a bronze foundry after he became professor in 1960. The others casts are in the British Council Collection and in the Städtische Kunsthalle in Mannheim. The catalogue also lists a Maquette for Large Flat Bird, 1956 which is in an edition of six plus one artist’s copy.[15]

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] BM 1, reproduced in Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, p.27, pl.5
[2] BM 45, reproduced ibid., p.50, pl.29
[3] BM 50, reproduced ibid., p.31, pl.31
[4] BM 54, reproduced ibid., p.140
[5] Interview with Tamsyn Woollcombe, Artists’ Lives, Tate Gallery Archive, TAV415A
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] 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
[9] Interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[10] Read 1952
[11] David Mellor, ‘Existentialism and Post-War British Art’ in Frances Morris (ed.), Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.56
[12] BM 51, reproduced Bowness 1995, p.140
[13] Meadows, conversation with Tate Gallery conservator, May 1997, Tate Gallery conservation files
[14] Tate Gallery conservation files
[15] BM 43, reproduced in Bowness 1995, p.139