Kenneth Armitage

Figure on its back


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Not on display

Kenneth Armitage 1916–2002
Graphite, gouache, household emulsion and gloss paint on paper
Support: 530 × 665 mm
Presented by the Kenneth Armitage Foundation 2012


Figure on its Back 1961 is a charcoal and gouache drawing on paper depicting a single reclining figure. The figure’s arms and legs, delineated in charcoal, are drawn up close to the amorphous torso, while the figure’s face is left blank, with just the hair roughly sketched in. Like Standing Figure 1956 (Tate T13677), Figure on its Back is not a direct study for a sculpture. However, it shows Armitage’s accomplished draughtsmanship applied to a major theme of his work as a whole – the reclining figure, sometimes arranged awkwardly or, as here, in a more comfortable position. This drawing also shares with Armitage’s three-dimensional work a similar flattening of form, as if the body had been divided into planes that are positioned in relation to one another. A similar, if less resolved drawing, is on the verso of the sheet.

Drawing was a major part of Armitage’s practice as a sculptor and he routinely kept sketchbooks, making direct studies for sculptures and using drawing as a way of exploring themes that, while close to those resolved in his sculptures, take on their own significance. At the same time, a number of his drawings, like Figure on its Back, are individual works in their own right, even when they relate to ideas he was exploring in his sculpture. This is also the case with the drawings Armitage editioned in lithograph (Seated Group 1960, Tate P06014, and Balanced Figure 1960–1, Tate P06015).

Armitage consolidated his reputation when he showed in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and 1958. At the earlier Biennale, his work appeared as part of the exhibition New Aspects of British Sculpture, which brought to the fore a tendency in British sculpture that was widely identified as the ‘geometry of fear’ and also included artists such as Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. His work remained largely figurative throughout his career, depicting human bodies as fragile but playful forms often made up of elongated limbs and flattened planes. Later in his career, from the 1960s onwards, he incorporated different materials such as plastic into his practice and began to work on a much larger scale. His public commissions included a war memorial for the city of Krefeld, Germany; a sculpture for the British Embassy in Brasilia; and another for the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Further reading
Kenneth Armitage, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1959.
Kenneth Armitage, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1972.
Tamsyn Woollcombe (ed.), Kenneth Armitage: Life and Work, London 1997.

Andrew Wilson
April 2012
Arthur Goodwin
December 2018

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