Girl on a Round Base is a life-size and life-like sculpture of a naked girl. Supported on the balls of her feet and by her hands, her body arches up in an overtly erotic manner. In places her ample white flesh bulges and gathers in soft, round folds. Her head is flung back, upside down; her lips are parted and eyes open. Her hairline is straight to emulate that of a doll. According to Butler, the absence of pubic hair came from his inability to make it sufficiently sculptural.
The sculpture is one of four large painted bronzes of naked girls that he made between 1968 and 1972. They were all made at his home near Berkhamsted. During the 1960s he was increasingly disillusioned by what he called the 'neo-primitive' tradition of much modern sculpture: ' I felt that all the major 20th century sculptors were living in emotions of long-dead cultures making cult objects for non-existent societies, nostalgically ignoring their own world' (Butler, 'The Views of Lespugue and Other Naked Ladies', in Reg Butler, p.39). His sense of the irrelevance of much sculpture and his growing frustration with the lifelessness of sculptural materials reached a crisis point while he was working on an over life-size figure of a girl. As the piece developed he became aware that however much he tried to invest it with life it remained primarily a bronze sculpture: 'Every time I looked down on the girl I was confronted, not by the gaze of a woman, but by what I felt was the conventional blindness of bronze sculpture' (Reg Butler, p.39). He then hit on the idea of painting the eyes and face, and thus began a long process of making the figure ever more real.
As with the other sculptures, Girl on a Round Base was initially modelled in wax, then cast in polyester resin before shell-casting in bronze. The figure was then painted by the artist's wife, Rosemary. She used a succession of pigments, ending with a spray of colour derived from red Devon soil, to mimic the modulated, flat tones of human skin. Butler made the eyes from resin, and his wife threaded the hair, which is human hair, into the scalp. One reason for painting the figure a 'sugar almond' colour, as Butler described it, was that it allowed him to make the anatomical exaggerations he wanted without making the girl appear absurdly massive. The decision to give the figure blonde hair was determined by his wish to keep the overall tonality of the sculpture pale.
The pose of the sculpture relates closely to the realist drawings of naked contorted female figures Butler had been making since the late 1950s. Those drawings changed his style from the spiky, iron sculpture of the 1950s to the increasingly realist work of the 1960s. For Butler, this fortuitous harmonisation of disciplines, allowed him to work on drawings and sculpture in the same day, something he had been unable to do before. It remains unclear whether he made drawings for the sculpture or if they were a parallel activity. The identity of the model is not known.
The stylisation of certain passages of the body relates to Hans Bellmer’s (1902-75) distorted figures in which the sexualised body is similarly objectified. Francis Bacon's (1909-92) paintings of contorted figures on beds, for example Reclining Woman 1961 (Tate T00453), and Balthus's (1908-2001) pictures of naked girls, are other instances of work that share this vocabulary and its disturbingly erotic charge. Among the sources that Butler himself cited were the 'slant-eye bitches' (Reg Butler, p.37) painted by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) and the 'hairy, sweaty, grainy flesh' of Pierre Bonnard's (1867-1947) naked figures.
Reg Butler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1983, reproduced p.45 and p.71, cat.no.71
17 October 2002
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