After studying at the Slade School in 1919, Leon Underwood embarked on a prolific career as a sculptor, painter and print maker, producing an eclectic body of work. Throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s Underwood made sculptures with subjects drawn from Mexican, Native American and African sources. Three of these have Native American themes including, Manitu Bird and Totem to the Artist 1925-30 (Tate T00644).
The sculpture was made at Underwood’s home and studio in Girdlers Road, Hammersmith, London, from where he ran the Brook Green School of Art (1920-39), counting Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Eileen Agar (1899-1991) among others as his students. Here, Underwood amassed a collection of non-western art, including Native American art, from which he took inspiration.
The method of direct carving into wood employed here, and the painted surface, are both attributes of North West Coast art. Moreover, the subject is also taken from a Native American myth – the Manitu or Manitou is a spiritual state and a life force invoked through animals, birds or Manitu-humans. While it is unlikely that Underwood knew of the exact origins of the term, he was attracted to the idea that non-western art was essentially spiritual, and he sought to emulate this in both his choice of subject matter and technique.
In Manitu Bird the reclining figure lying on and merging with the bird evokes the spirit. Furthermore its placement on a reflective surface presents multiple light sources that give meaning to the work. The Manitu has a sense of movement and weightlessness as if in flight, and its luminosity gives it a mystical and even transcendental quality. Underwood’s choice of subject matter, his use of direct carving techniques and reflective surfaces are likely to have been inspired by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). In particular, the square base, constructed from a dark wood upon which is a reflective surface is reminiscent of Brancusi’s use of multi-media bases, while the anthropomorphic figure/bird which forms the shape of a half-oval also bears comparison with Brancusi’s Fish 1926 (Tate T07107).
Manitu Bird was made a year after the publication of Underwood’s only philosophical tract Art for Heaven’s Sake: Notes on a Philosophy of Art, and it seems to capture his main proposition that art should be spiritually motivated. Underwood proposes that ‘Art for Heaven’s Sake’ should be the artist’s ‘motto’, and that art be re-conceptualised as the ‘the new religion...it is time art were brought into the open and made the basis of practical religion.....Art alone is capable of satisfying the need of the masses, for whom reality is material and touchable, and also for those outside the masses, for whom reality in immaterial and spiritual’ (Underwood 1934, pp.2-3).
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974
Ben Whitworth, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, Aldershot 2000, cat.96, reproduced, p.68
Leon Underwood, Art for Heavens Sake: Notes on the Philosophy of Art Today, printed by Hague and Gill, Faber and Faber, London 1934