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 (Tate T06887) and Totem to the Artist.
Totem to the Artist is a woodcarving made from English yew, with a metal overlay. The main structure of the Totem is carved into a single block of wood and depicts three embracing figures; and is intended to be displayed in the round as each angle unfolds a new view. The sense of balance and rhythm of the sculpture, two qualities of primary concern to Underwood, is enhanced by the highly polished surface and metal overlay. 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.
The exact form of the totem does not correspond to specific examples of North West Coast totems, but Underwood did collect Native American art and is likely to have seen examples at the British Museum’s ethnographic collection as well as reproductions of totems in books. From these sources he extracted the essential form of the totem, with its elongated structure and simplified, interweaving motifs that reveal space and light between the structure. But Underwood’s technique of carving into a single block of wood, the polishing of the surface into a high lustre and the use of metal inlay are also characteristic of some African art, particularly Fang sculpture of the Gabon region (South West Cameroon) with which he was familiar. Underwood had also responded to the work of sculptors Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) whose work had been inspired by the techniques of direct carving employed in non-western art. More specifically, the Totem’s organic, elongated form surmounted on a tiered base, one part uneven the other reflective, is a device employed by Brancusi, whom Underwood greatly admired.
Underwood often argued that his aesthetic responses to non-western art in terms of materials and style, however, were motivated by a commitment to subject matter. In support of this argument he wrote ‘Totemism is the subject matter of this work’ and is ‘a form in its own right, as in an elegy in poetry and the Nike or Victory in Classical sculpture’ (Tate Acquisition Catalogue, T00644). Underwood uses the idea of totemism, in which social groups are identified by natural emblems, to symbolise the relationship of artists as a generic group with the rest of society: ‘the figure at the top is the artist, his head identical with the heel of his creation – the middle figure – by which he is elevated. His work is received by the public, the bottom figure. Briefly, one could describe it as: the artist, his work, and his public’ (Chamot, Farr and Butlin, T00644).
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Pictures, Volume 2, London 1964
Christopher Neve, Leon Underwood, London 1974
Ben Whitworth, The Sculpture of Leon Underwood, Aldershot 2000