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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. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Underwood remained strongly committed to subject matter, and more specifically to art of a figurative nature. This is evident in part in his many sculptural references to the torso as in Torso: The June of Youth 1937 (Tate N04975) and Torso 1930.
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 from which he took inspiration.
Underwood began Torso in 1923 and it belongs to a series of works which employ direct carving techniques and a simplified, angular rendering of the figure. Torso is a re-articulation of the classical subject of the torso in characteristic modernist terms, replacing verisimilitude and the practice of modelling with the use of direct carving into stone to create a sense of volume and simplified form. Torso also reveals Underwood’s preference for the voluminous block form that arises out of the crudely cut base, a practice employed by Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), whom he greatly admired, to express his commitment to the ideal of ‘truth to materials’.
Underwood had also learnt of the technique of direct carving through Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) and Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) whose Vorticist work had been inspired by the techniques of direct carving employed in non-western art and particularly in African art, and its subsequent repercussions on the simplification of form, both of which informed their commitment to the idea of ‘truth to materials’ and ultimately a kind of Primitivism. Furthermore Underwood had visited Mexico in 1928 where the use of stone in monuments and sculpture had further inspired his fascination with direct carving into stone using simple tools, and may account for him finishing the work after prolonged interruption in 1930.
In addition, Underwood’s use of geometric and curved planes to articulate the torso
was a technique employed by Gaudier-Brzeska in Redstone Dancer 1913 (Tate N04515) and Bird Swallowing a Fish 1913-14 (Tate T00658). Yet the contortion of the body in Torso which expresses both rest and potential dynamism was of particular concern to Underwood and is explored in a number of works in the 1930s. Likewise, although Torso is a sculpture that can be viewed in the round, it has the appearance of a low relief with the emphasis on the front of the body whose articulation is predominantly created in a series of shallow, sweeping lines, a method which was informed by the artist’s intense exploration of wood engraving.
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974, p 84
Ben Whitworth, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, Aldershot 2000, p. 21, 22, 24