Michael Sandle

Der Trommler

1985, cast 1987

In Tate Britain

Michael Sandle born 1936
Object: 2640 × 1340 × 990 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1987

Catalogue entry

T04941 Der Trommler 1985, cast 1987

Bronze 2640 × 1340 × 990 (104 × 52 3/4 × 39), cast by Morris Singer Foundries, Basingstoke, as one of an edition of 5 with 1 artist's example Incised inscription ‘M SANDLE 1987’ at the front right of the top surface of the integral base Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1987
Prov: Purchased by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1987
Lit: John Spurling, ‘Beat the Drum’, New Statesman, 28 June 1985, pp.30–1, repr. (another cast), as ‘The Drummer’; Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Summer of the Umpteenth Doll’, Guardian, 6 June 1987, p.12, as ‘The Drummer’; John Spurling, ‘Struggling with a Python’, RA Magazine, vol.17, Summer 1987, pp.32–3, repr. (another cast), as ‘The Drummer’; Marco Livingstone, ‘History in the Present Tense’ and Jon Bird, ‘The Spectacle of Memory’, in Michael Sandle: Sculpture & Drawings 1957–88, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1988, pp.22–3, 32–3, 38, repr.pp.2, [55], [82] (other casts); William Packer, ‘Dismembered Heads’, Financial Times, 17 May 1988, p.21, repr. (another cast), as ‘The Drummer’; Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘With a Lipless Grin’, Independent, 17 May 1988, p.7, as ‘The Drummer’; John Spurling, ‘The Dark Knight Wins’, New Statesman, 20 May 1988, p.31, as ‘The Drummer’; John McEwen, ‘Worthy Heir to Henry Moore’, Illustrated London News, vol.276, no.7079, June 1988, p.84–6, repr. (another cast); Richard Cork, ‘George Crossed’, Listener, 23 June 1988, p.41, repr. (another cast), as ‘The Drummer’; Tate Gallery Report 1986–8, 1988, p.85, repr. (col.), as ‘The Drummer’. Also repr: Vogue, May 1988, p.255 (with the artist, unidentified cast), as ‘Drummer’; Michael Sandle in Conversation with John Spurling: Memorials and Monuments, audiovisual pack, [between 1988 and 1990], slide 15; Apollo, vol.131, March 1990, p.185 (another cast)

This monumental bronze, which has a predominantly mat black-brown patination, shows a striding figure beating a drum. The figure's head lacks human facial features. Instead, it has a long projecting ‘muzzle’, reminiscent of a horse's head or of ancient armour. Two indented grooves running the length of the muzzle-form define the figure's ‘eyes’ and ‘nose’. Above, emerging from the figure's head or helmet, is a circular disc with a cross, raised in relief, on both sides. The figure's chest is partly bared, revealing the sternum and rib cage. The torso is loosely bound with straps which appear to have no particular function. On the figure's arms these straps meld into the folds of the sleeves of a coat. On his back the figure carries a rolled groundsheet, which projects outwards in a conical shape at both ends. The groundsheet rests on a rectangular knapsack, and both are crossed by straps, raised in relief. In front the drummer carries a cylindrical drum. While his right hand holds a single drumstick, his left holds a curving array of no less than seven sticks. This repetition of a single form is an effect used by the artist to represent, as in a long-exposure photograph, the drumstick's swift movement. The figure steps onto a raised part of the integral base. His bent right leg is modelled in such a way as to suggest bone, muscle, flesh and, finally, the cloth of his ‘ceremonial robe’ (described as such by the artist in a letter to the compiler dated 15 January 1995). While the toes of the right foot are clearly defined, the figure's left leg appears lost in a medley of rhyming shapes, some naturalistic but most apparently abstract. Seen from behind, the lower part of the figure is a mass of small, geometrically shaped volumes, with few naturalistic referents. The artist worked on the sculpture in Karlsruhe, Germany, where since 1980 he has taught as Professor of Sculpture at the Akademie der Bildenen Künste.

In conversation with Jon Bird (1988, p.38) the artist said that the idea for this sculpture derived from ‘a number of remembered incidents and contemporary events’. He pointed to the presence of a drumming figure in ‘The Three Magi’, 1957 (repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat., 1988, [p.40]), the ‘most successful painting that I did during my student period at the Slade’. Later, in a letter to the compiler dated 3 March 1990, he reiterated that the initial conception for ‘Der Trommler’ came in part from this early painting which included a robed figure, carrying a drum with decorative roping on its side. In a later letter, dated 27 December 1994, the artist wrote, ‘As my ideas for sculpture tend to evolve slowly, it is not always clear to me, just exactly what causes these ideas to be “precipitated out” into a finished piece’. However, he pointed to two further sources, one literary, the other visual. ‘It is possible that the Tin Drum (I read it in English) played a part; I do know that I was immensely impressed by Volcker Schlöendorf's film version [1979] of this book by Günther Grass [1959]’. He continued, ‘One source for “Der Trommler” was a photograph of a solitary drummer wandering up a backstreet during a “Basler Morgenstreich” prior to 1985. This photograph, together with a poster relating to the B. Morgenstreich, hung in the flat of a friend of mine in Karlsruhe’. It seems that the book or film of The Tin Drum, together with the photograph and poster of a drummer in the Swiss parade (see below), were the immediate triggers for Sandle's exploration of a theme which had its origins in a painting executed nearly twenty years previously.

Early in 1985 Sandle made a suite of six etchings titled ‘The Driver’ (repr. Michael Sandle: Recent Drawings and Bronzes, exh. cat., Fischer Fine Art 1985, no.93, as ‘Set of six etchings’). These were ‘loosely based on the photograph’ (letter, 27 December 1994). All six etchings feature a skeleton, representing death, driving a bulldozer. In an interview given in 1988 Sandle described this imagery as ‘a symbol of Time, the power of Time to wipe the slate clean’ (Livingstone 1988, p.23). Four of the etchings also include a drummer who is recognisably the antecedent of the figure in T04941. With a projecting visor or helmet, and with his rib-cage exposed, the drummer in these etchings carries a drum with decorative roping at its side, and marches alongside the bulldozer, amid fallen masonry and general devastation. These prints indicate that Sandle envisaged the drummer as a herald of the approach of death, an accompaniment to the ‘march’ of time.

In this period Sandle was fascinated with German and Swiss fasching (Shrovetide) parades. (As a child Sandle had enjoyed playing in a silver band: in an interview with Jon Bird - 1988, p.38 - he said, ‘my life might well have taken a different route if I had been allowed to play a trumpet, which I had set my heart on’.) After completing the etchings, Sandle went to see the Morgenstreich parade in Basle. In his interview with Jon Bird (ibid.) he recalled:

In Basle, in Switzerland, the procession starts at 4 am and the troupe wears really over the top costumes ... But when they start drumming and piping en masse it's quite extraordinary. I went to Basle knowing that I was going to take a figure out of the fasching procession, and I had already done a series of etchings based upon death driving a bulldozer accompanied with outriders playing drums. Also of course, the drummer is a recurrent theme in European painting, particularly German Expressionism.

In his interview with Marco Livingstone (1988, p.23), Sandle gave more information about the Basle procession, the ‘Basler Morgenstreich’, held in early March each year:

I went to Basle to see the celebrated procession which starts at four o'clock in the morning, God knows how many drummers... And I saw a man dressed in black wearing a gas mask in the procession, playing a drum. It was very exciting, the sound was amazing. Knowing that I wanted to do a drummer, and that I wanted to take elements from the carnival ... and there he was.

Sandle took photographs of the procession but these failed to develop, and he went on to explore the theme of the drummer in a series of approximately twenty-five ink and wash drawings, five of which are reproduced in the 1985 Fischer Fine Art catalogue. One relates closely to the suite of etchings, and shows the drummer walking alongside the bulldozer (no.49, ‘The Drummer from the “Driver”’, 1985). Here the figure's face has large circles for eyes, recalling the head of the skeleton, and is shown wearing a gas-mask. This element recalls an early etching by the artist titled ‘Soldier Wearing Gas Mask’, 1956 (repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat., 1988, p.14), inspired by prints by the early twentieth-century German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz. The other four etchings in the suite are more closely related to the sculpture. ‘The Drummer (black and gold)’ (no.48) shows the drummer with a head reminiscent both of a skull and a gas mask, a stylised rib cage, a bare foot, a rolled groundsheet, and an ornately roped drum. In ‘Studie für “Der Trommler”’ (no.46), the figure's head, which resembles that of a horse, has a circular disc with a cruciform shape; on the figure's shoulders is a rectangular knapsack. In another drawing with the same title (no.45) the head and thorax are described as geometric shapes, suggestive of polished metal; the figure carries a pack on its back. Although the figure has only two drumsticks, the sweep of the stick held in the right hand is indicated, suggesting that the artist was already concerned to find a way of representing the action of beating the drum. The last drawing reproduced in the catalogue (no.47), which is titled in English ‘Study for The Drummer (“Der Trommler”)’, shows the figure walking on a crenellated surface, an element retained in the final sculpture. In his letter to the compiler dated 15 January 1995 Sandle explained that this surface ‘is in fact a row of truncated railway sleepers. There is a subliminal hint of a railway line as a result. I always associate railway lines with war and deathcamps for obvious reasons’. In an earlier letter (3 March 1990) Sandle described the series of drawings as ‘preparatory studies, a way of examining possibilities and making choices before commitment to the expense and difficulties entailed in realising a large sculpture’.

Sandle proceeded to make a maquette, 26 cm high, using wood and plasticene. This was ‘the definitive model. There were no significant alterations made in the modelling of the plaster original, except for the sharpening of the definition of the forms, which is fairly normal’ (letter, 27 December 1994). ‘As an afterthought’ (ibid.), the artist had an edition of nine bronzes made from the maquette in 1988.

From the maquette Sandle made a full-scale plaster. He had always anticpated making the bronze through sand-casting: ‘The modelling in plaster took this into account. This meant that the forms were more planar and austere than they would have been for the “cire perdue” process’. (ibid.)

Four casts have been made of ‘Der Trommler’, including an artist's copy which is not part of the edition. According to the artist (letter, 3 March 1990), the first cast to be produced is now owned by the Open Air Museum in Hakone, Japan. This cast was shown in Michael Sandle, Recent Drawings and Bronzes at Fischer Fine Art in May 1985 and at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1987. The second, T04941, was cast by Morris Singer Foundries in Basingstoke. In his letter the artist records that he did not supervise the casting of this piece, but did oversee the assembling of the constituent parts, the chasing and the patination. Another cast is in an American private collection, and a further cast is owned by the Landsrat Amt in Pforzheim. The artist's copy stands in front of the premises of Sandle's German founders, Messrs. Casper Ltd., Remchingen, near Pforzheim, where it and the first example of the edition were cast. It was only at the time of casting T04941 that the artist decided to set a limit of five casts for the edition. The edition has yet to be completed.

Elements of ‘Der Trommler’ appear closely related to earlier works by Sandle. The rib-cage, for example, is reminiscent of the skeletal Mickey Mouse creature at the centre of ‘Twentieth-Century Memorial’, 1971–8 (T06896, repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat., 1986, p.48 in col.). (In a letter dated 3 March 1990 Sandle wrote that the rib-cage motif was in turn ‘influenced by early German wood-carvings of Christ’.) The origins of the rolled groundsheet carried by ‘Der Trommler’ can be found in the cylindrical forms ranged behind the Mickey Mouse creature. Although conceived as part of the figure's military paraphernalia in this earlier work, the cylindrical forms were also intended to have associations with religious scrolls (letter to the compiler, 15 January 1995). According to the artist, the proliferation of straps, evocative both of military wear and shrouds in ‘Der Trommler’ relates to the ‘Memorial for the Victims of Helicopter Disaster, Mannheim’, 1981 (repr. ibid., p.84): ‘the straps first appeared “wrapped” around the central form [of the memorial] - this was the outcome of working in stone and the necessity for finding an analogue for the helicopter's rotor-blades’ (letter, 3 March 1990). A visually similar use of crossing, strap-like forms, representing broken roads, can be seen in the ink drawing, ‘Brennendes Denkmal in Steinlandschaft II’, 1984 (repr. Michael Sandle: ‘1984’, exh. cat., Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum der Stadt Duisburg 1984, p.57).

The projecting discs seen at the lower right side of the figure, which are seemingly abstract, formal devices, can be found also in ‘Shrouded Figure’, 1981 (repr. ibid., p.29). Such discs have been said to relate to Sandle's early memories of the Isle of Man: according to John McEwen, the artist ‘can trace his obsession with implanted discs to a childhood fascination for the huge fungi that grew like plates from the trunks and branches of the Island's beech trees, objects rendered all the more surprising in acute lights by the inky shadows they threw’ (‘Michael Sandle’, in Michael Sandle: Recent Drawings and Bronzes, exh. cat., Fischer Fine Art 1981, p.3). In a letter to the compiler (15 January 1995), however, Sandle wrote that this association was only partly true, explaining that the source for the motif was rooted in a different memory dating from his years as a child and a teenager on the Isle of Man:

I remember seeing some very large flat discs, either stone or concrete, that were lying around the side of a rectangular concrete enclosure, at the Onchan end of Douglas Promenade when I was about twelve years old. The discs were piled up in a random way, the whole thing was behind a very tall stretch of wire mesh.

For some reason, this ensemble has stuck in my memory and has been the trigger for a number of my works.

The cross motif, found on both sides of the disc that emerges from the drummer's head or helmet in T04941, was intended to evoke associations of Christianity. ‘War and religion have been bed-fellows for centuries. The “Iconic” form is just that. I was thinking about “Icons” ... there was a stage in my career, about the time of the “Three Magi”, in fact, when I was very interested in early Christian painters like Duccio, Cimabue and so on’ (ibid.).

In conversation with Jon Bird (1988, pp.38–9), Sandle spoke about how the idea of movement conveyed by the striding figure of ‘Der Trommler’ was a relatively novel element in his work:

I have been very interested recently in movement, dynamism ... Previously all of my work was very static, I was involved with form and stillness, a strangeness if you like. It just happened that in this piece I became interested in movement, something which was new and surprising for me. All of my figures have been horizontal and I realised that I had never done a standing figure.

Sandle subsequently made other large scale bronze figures, conceived in quasi-abstract shapes and volumes. ‘Woman for Heidelberg’, 1987 (repr. Whitechapel Art Gallery exh. cat., 1988, [p.56]), is a static figure, based initially on the idea of representing a nurse. ‘St George and the Dragon’, 1987–8 (repr. ibid., [p.57] in col.), is an equestrian monument, in which the horse and rider are pitched at a dynamic angle. ‘A Might Blow for Freedom/Fuck the Media’, 1988 (repr.ibid., [p.115] in col.), represents a figure energetically swinging a hammer.

Behind Sandle's new interest in representing movement in sculpture lay his admiration for the work of the Italian Futurist painter and sculptor, Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916). The striding posture and abstracted treatment of the volumes of the figure of ‘Der Trommler’ recall in particular Boccioni's ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’, 1913 (see T01589, cast 1972). While Boccioni himself did not use the device of a repeated element to depict motion, it was a characteristic of some Futurist painting (see, for example, Giacomo Balla's ‘The Hand of the Violinist’, 1912, repr. Italian Art in the 20th Century, exh. cat., RA 1989, pl.6 in col.).

Another work of the same period to which ‘Der Trommler’ appears related is the mechanistic figure in ‘The Rock Drill’, 1913–14 (see T00340) by the British sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein. However, the artist writes, ‘I would like to stress, that whereas there was a conscious element of Boccioni in the sculpture, I was not conscious of Epstein's “Rock Drill” although there are some obvious similarities’ (letter, 27 December 1994). In an earlier letter (3 March 1990) Sandle pointed to other possible sources in the history of modern art: ‘Duchamp-Villon could possibly have been a less conscious influence and this is true of Wyndham Lewis’. He had always thought that the subject of a drummer had been an important motif in German Expressionist art, but conceded that this was not the case. However, in this and his second letter, he acknowledged that he had been particularly inspired by an image of of a helmeted, strutting god of war, which he thought was by the Austrian graphic artist, Alfred Kubin (1877–1959) and had been reproduced in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German satirical magazine Simplicissimus. Sandle writes, ‘The sculpture “Der Trommler” was intended to have a similar import ... it was intended to be a messenger of wars to come, and a reminder of wars that have been. In my mind I had thought primarily of European (included here, the former U.S.S.R.) Wars’ (letter, 27 December 1994). Later Sandle thought that the image in question may not have been by Kubin, though he confirmed that he had known another Kubin image, which had ‘played a part’ in his development of T04941 (letter, 15 January 1994). This was ‘Der Kreig’, first reproduced in a portfolio of facsimile reproductions in 1903 (repr. Paul Raabe, Alfred Kubin: Leben. Werk. Wirkung, Hamburg 1958, opp.p.161). It shows a side view of an energetically striding male figure, a god of war with huge, hoof-like feet. He is nude but carries a shield and an axe, and wears a helmet which covers his face and has a projecting element above.

For Sandle, ‘The Drummer’ is ‘supposed to invoke the feelings experienced on hearing loud, insistent and menacing drumming. The piece is meant to stand as a reminder of wars in the past, in the present and those yet to come’ (letter, 3 March 1990). The theme of war, and the memorialisation of war, is central to much of Sandle's work. It is a theme that is undoubtedly coloured by his experience of life in Germany where the legacy of the Second World War is omnipresent. However, Sandle stresses that he is perhaps moved even more by the First World War than the Second, and points to the fact that his work on the theme of war predates his move to Germany. In conversation on 26 January 1995 the artist mentioned that at the time of making T04941 he had been particularly interested in an earlier conflict on German soil, the Peasants’ War of 1524–5.

Sandle himself has vivid, early memories of war, as John McEwen (1981, p.3) writes, ‘He remembers in Plymouth the sound of falling masonry during an air-raid-an eerie musical tinkling’. Sandle has recalled, ‘I particularly remember one time, going through Plymouth on a train with my mother. I remember her saying, “Look Michael, that's where we used to live”. I looked, and in an arc of 180 degrees all you could see was rubble. It made an incredible impression. If you're a child, you think this is how the world is; you don't question it. Everything that happens to you afterwards is in a sense irrelevant - nothing can wipe out those experiences’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Anti-Monuments’, Vogue, May 1986, p.235). As a child, Sandle was terrified by the idea of death (see McEwen 1981, p.4), an obsession which, he acknowledges, surfaces in his mature work. He also spent two years (1954–6) in the Royal Artillery for his National Service, an experience which he remembers, according to Marco Livingstone, ‘as a useful experience and one which undoubtedly affected his choice of imagery in later life’ (1988, p.10).

Sandle's confrontation with the subjects of war, aggression and death necessarily engages with the ways in which these topics are publicly addressed within western society. Jon Bird writes (1988, p.34):

Sandle's monuments, memorials and tombs [present]... a critical and ironic commentary upon nationalistic and cultural ideologies of moral authority, immortality and transcedendence, with death as the ever-present signifier undermining the order of rationality itself. Our nostalgia for the signs of the past provides a basis for Sandle's reframing and reordering of the landscape of experience, reminding us of the necessity to retrieve from the myths of the past, the foundations of historical memory and the realization of our own mortality.

For Bird, ‘Der Trommler’ is ‘a robotised icon of threatening power, an alien and alienated image of military spectacle whose inexorable advance seems to herald the inevitable repetition of the authoritarian personality’ (p.33). For John Spurling (1985, p.31), ‘The figure is both victim and aggressor, a grim reminder of ancient wars and a stirrer of up of new ones, a corpse and a portent of fresh corpses. As a sculpture it is rooted in early 20th-century enthusiasms, yet it is also a brand-new image of that 20th-century triple monster, the animal-human-machine, caught between progress and regress, energy and despair’. Interviewed by Livingstone (1988, p.23), Sandle said, ‘I want a vehement sculpture, I want a sculpture that will disturb people. I don't want to avoid that confrontation’.

In his letter to the compiler dated 27 December 1994, Sandle commented on the sculpture's title: ‘I have lived in Germany for over twenty years, and I think in German and English. To me, the sculpture is “Der Trommler”.’ In the Tate Gallery Report 1986–8 the title of this sculpture was erroneously given as ‘The Drummer’.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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