Michael Sandle



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Not on display

Michael Sandle born 1936
Resin, brass and plastic
Object: 921 × 1264 × 40 mm
Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of David and Maggi Gordon, 2011, in memory of Max Gordon
On long term loan


Bridgehead 1967 is a polished brass and resin wall-hung relief that in technique reflects the influence of Japanese lacquer work on Michael Sandle’s work (other examples are Crocus 1963, private collection, and Succubus 1965–6, Museum Sztuki, Lodz). Cream, black and red resin, alongside brass, provide the work’s dominant colours, and the technique lends itself to a fragmented composition that incorporates diagrammatic plan and elevation as well as perspectival view. Bordered by an integral frame, a cloud-shaped line (which may also be read as a geo-political border or a coastal or river line) roughly divides the composition horizontally. The lower half is dominated by grid and intersecting lattice structured decoration and in the left half of the relief is an ambiguously described motif – a segmented tubular shape with ‘ears’.

The image derives from a photograph of a stone statue of a Buddha at the Musée Guimet, a colonial-era museum in Paris that had been established in 1879 and has one of the largest collections of art from across Asia outside of the continent. In 1961 Sandle had spent time in Paris on a French State Scholarship, living within walking distance of the museum, and as a result habitually visited its collections of the art and culture of the Asian subcontinent. He has described his visits:

[I was] particularly taken with their collection of Chinese bronzes. However, a photograph of a stone statue of the Buddha wormed its way into my psyche and subsequently underwent changes until probably no longer recognisable to anyone else. The main elements are nevertheless still there in that there is a ‘head’ and very large ‘ears’ which have undergone a sort of ‘Art Nouveau’ transformation.
(Michael Sandle, email to Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 1 December 2012.)

Sandle saw the Buddha statue as an almost entirely aesthetic object. In this, he was following a path taken by many Western artists since the early years of the twentieth century who had similarly used objects from other cultures as a way of providing animating sources for their work. In so doing, they consciously or unconsciously continued the process that started with the museum’s displacement of the source from its cultural and religious context, and appropriated its imagery for their own artistic ends. Beneath this head motif, providing it with a base, is an abstract image made up of a lattice of diamonds that Sandle based on early childhood memories of the paper decorations that his mother put up at Christmas’. (Ibid.) The third key element of the composition is a schematised rainbow shape that dominates the upper, cream half of the composition. The bridge-like shape of the rainbow arcs and the transformed Buddha head then come together provide the work’s title, encouraging the viewer to make similar links between the imagery within the work. Between 1961 and 1963, Sandle taught design at Leicester College of Art alongside the influential teacher Tom Hudson (1922–1997), and the fragmentation of imagery in Bridgehead recalls the impact of Hudson’s ‘idea sheet’, in which a composition was developed without any consistency of style, point of view or conventional image being maintained. Additionally, he had learnt the technique of casting Polyester resin panels directly from Hudson. Although Sandle made only this one work using this technique, it had interested him because of his fascination with Japanese lacquer-work.

Bridgehead dates from a period when Sandle was teaching full-time at Coventry School of Art (1964–8) and reflects the development of his work of the mid to late-1960s, especially in its incipient relationship both to art nouveau forms and pop art. Some of the shapes emerged out of the process of resin casting and the difficulty Sandle found in drawing. Other sources for elements of the relief’s composition, however submerged, can be recovered. Below the Buddha ‘head’ is the striped collar of a sailor’s shirt – Sandle’s father was in the Royal Navy, and sailors in uniform were often at their home when he was a child. At the bottom right of the relief a white flag can be seen. Many of these motifs appear in different combinations in drawings and prints of this period such as Time and Identity I 1967 (edition of 30, private collection) and yet despite such identification Bridgehead resists specific interpretation beyond the workings of memory that forged the transformations on each motif and the connections that might be made between them. Sandle wrote about his recent work in 1967:

What I am concerned with through my work is not in isolating separate meanings as they occur, although this certainly comes into it, but in operating within a ‘complex’ or ‘concrete’ of whatever phenomenum of meaning is made available to me through consciousness. Obsessional states, concerning entopic lights and hypnagogic imagery, memory and paramnesia, infantile regression, the connexion between anal-oral drives, sado-masochism, paranoia, melancholia are taken into account and subsumed into the inquiry.
(Michael Sandle 1967, p.90.)

By the end of the 1960s, Sandle’s work was increasingly directed towards implicitly militaristic subjects; although Bridgehead makes no direct military connection within its imagery, the title is subliminally suggestive of an engagement with such subject matter. Sandle was not alone in turning to warfare and its effects on humanity as his subject. He had, for instance, known Terry Atkinson (born 1942) since the early 1960s at the Slade School of Art. Atkinson had long made work that used imagery from the First World War as the subject for work that highlighted the political and moral dissonances of warfare. Similarly, Colin Self (born 1941) used the pop art idiom in part to address the subject of Cold War politics. For Sandle, it was through his interest in Japanese lacquer, pop art and art nouveau that he was able to moderate his earlier expressionist work to a harder and more angular sculpture, with a more rigorous formal language that was itself closer to the brutal machinery of industrialised militaristic violence that his work would come to portray in the form of memorials such as A Twentieth Century Memorial 1971–8 (Tate T06896). This, and much of Sandle’s other work, deals with the moral, political, social and psychological implications of mechanised warfare, largely using the language of public monumental memorial sculpture.

Further reading
Michael Sandle, untitled statement, Studio International, vol.174, 1967, p.90.
Michael Sandle: Sculpture & Drawings 1957–88, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1988.

Andrew Wilson
October 2011, revised November 2020

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