William Turnbull

Head 3


Not on display

William Turnbull 1922–2012
Object: 160 × 242 × 155 mm
Purchased 1988


During the mid-1950s the head was an important theme in Turnbull’s paintings and sculptures. In both disciplines he explored the limits of the motif, often abstracting it up to the edge of its legibility as a head. Discussing his interest in the head during that period Turnbull later divulged that the word itself had ‘meant for me what I imagined the word “Landscape” had meant for some painters – a format that could carry different loadings.’ (‘Head Semantics’, Uppercase, unpaginated). He continued, ‘The sort of thing that interested me was – how little will suggest a head, how much load will the shape take and still read head, head as colony, head as landscape, head as mask, head as ideogram, head as sign, etc’ (Uppercase, unpaginated). The highly abstracted and weathered appearance of Head 3 is a manifestation of this interest. The curator Patrick Elliott has suggested that Turnbull’s head sculptures of the mid 1950s were the nuclear age’s interpretation of Constantin Brancusi’s (1876–1957) smoothly polished Muse 1912 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), and has compared their appearance to grenades and bombs (William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, p.29). The critic Maurice de Sausmarez, making a similar comparison in 1960, noted the corrosive, violent nature of the work, suggesting that ‘the vicious slashings of the surface are like self-inflicted wounds’ (de Sausmarez, p.34). In this context, there is a congruence between Jean Fautrier’s (1897–1964) Otages series of abstracted heads, first exhibited in Paris in 1945 and described by Andre Malraux (1901–1976) as ‘A hieroglyph of pain’ (Les Otages, peintures et sculptures de Fautrier, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Rene Droiun, Paris 1945), and Turnbull’s heads of the early to mid-1950s. Although Fautrier’s work was not exhibited in Britain until 1958, Turnbull may have seen it while living in Paris between 1948 and 1950.

Starting with a lump of wet plaster that he had shaped into an ovoid, Turnbull scored and marked the surface with various objects, among them corrugated paper, pencils and pieces of string. He then made a mould from the plaster and from that cast a bronze. Through this technique he sought to use ‘texture to invoke chance, to create random discoveries, not elaborate the surface, but to accentuate that it was a skin of bronze.’ (Uppercase, unpaginated). The attention to the skin-like surface and the lumpiness of the form are characteristics shared with much 1950s sculpture, including that of Turnbull’s friend Eduardo Paolozzi (b.1924).

None of the sculptures in the head series was intended to be displayed in a particular way, indeed Turnbull himself encouraged people to pick them up and roll them around. All are free-standing and none have a designated top or bottom. This informal, non-hierarchical approach may be associated, at least tangentially, with the Independent Group, a loose confederation of artists that emerged from the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in the early 1950s. Turnbull, who was an important figure within the group, shared with several other members, among them Paolozzi, a specific interest in the theme of the abstracted, assembled head and a more general desire to break cultural hierarchies. While Paolozzi’s challenge to the traditional separation of high and low culture involved the direct incorporation into his work of elements from the mass media and the technological world, Turnbull’s work, which fed off an equally wide range of cultural sources and natural forms, did so only obliquely.

Head 3 is one of an edition of four, and was probably made at the studio Turnbull shared with Paolozzi in Radnor Walk, London.

Further reading
Maurice de Sausmarez, ‘Four Abstract Sculptors: Dalwood, Warren-Davies, Bates, Hoskin’, Motif, vol.5, Autumn 1960, pp.32–4, reproduced p.35.
William Turnbull, ‘Head Semantics’, Uppercase, 4, 1960, unpaginated.
Richard Morphet, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.30–1, reproduced p.31, cat.no.23.
William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1995.

Toby Treves
June 2001

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Display caption

One of a series of free-standing 'Heads' of 1955-7. In them human features appear to merge with the all-over surface texture. Lacerated and irregular, the heads suggest experience. Without obviously describing features, marks are inscribed like lines on a face. Turnbull's related paintings and reliefs treat the human head in further ways which combine extreme simplicity with openness to different ways of reading.

Gallery label, September 2004

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