William Turnbull

Idol 2


In Tate Britain

William Turnbull 1922–2012
Object: 1613 × 430 × 495 mm, 62 kg
Purchased 1990


Between 1955 and 1957 William Turnbull made a series of five similar free-standing sculptures titled Idol. Idol 2, cast in an edition of four, is the second in the series, and like the rest of the works is slightly smaller than the average height of an adult. In contrast to the Renaissance tradition, continued by such sculptors as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, in which a sculpture fluently unfolds itself as the viewer walks around it, these flattened works, in common with Archaic Greek and Ancient Egyptian sculpture, are emphatically frontal. Patrick Elliott has suggested that this quality ensures that 'the work must be perceived instantly not read in time' (William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, p.34).

Idol 2, like Idol 1, 3 and possibly 5, is an abstracted female figure. Turnbull pressed corrugated paper into the wet plaster of the model to create surface texture and to emphasise the form of breasts and legs. It is also used to denote such features as hair and skin. The head, an important motif in Turnbull's paintings and other sculptures at this time, is here reduced to a narrow point, with the nose being the single, clearly defined feature. Elsewhere the surface is scored and pockmarked creating a battered and weathered appearance.

Richard Morphet has noted that the figures Idol 1, 2 and 4 (Tate T05802) share the form of a simplified leaf or archaic spearhead. It is not known if such things were the formal inspiration for the sculptures, but what is evident is that the shape of the figures creates a considerable sense of stasis. The arms are incorporated into the torso and the legs and feet are fused to form a single trunk. The result is not a sense of arrested movement, but rather of an inability to move. Morphet has suggested that all the works in this series are emotionally understated and deliberately detached from modernity; qualities which he states were unusual in British art of the mid 1950s, when Francis Bacon's (1909-1992) expressionism vied with the social realism of the Kitchen Sink Painters and the exuberant modernism of the Independent Group.

The stillness of Idol 2, combined with its lack of narrative and its timeless or ancient formal references, has led critics to describe it, and the other sculptures in the series, as totemic. Indeed, Morphet has suggested that Turnbull's figures of the mid 1950s 'communicated a primitive idea of man' (Morphet, p.35). As such they were part of a general interest in mythology during the 1950s among such artists as Alan Davie (b.1920) and Eduardo Paolozzi (b.1924). However, concomitant with these themes were rather more contemporary references and concerns. Turnbull chose the word 'idol' both for its association with ancient gods and with film stars. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the majority of the figures are female. Though many members of the Independent Group took a keen interest in modernity and were resolutely opposed to a stratification of culture into high and low, few expressed these concerns in such an oblique and subtle way.

Idol 2 was made in Turnbull's cramped London studio at the end of four years in which he had failed to sell any work.

Further reading:
Richard Morphet, William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1973, pp.34-6, reproduced p.34, cat.no.29
William Turnbull: Sculpture and Painting, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 1995

Toby Treves
June 2001

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Display caption

The majority of Turnbull's sculptures of the mid - 1950s are very simplified upright forms of human height standing directly on the ground. This is one of a series of 'Idols' made between 1955-7 where the human figure has been refined and streamlined so that it resembles a spear or leaf shape, sometimes incised with surface marks. The integral base suggests feet and the sculpture possesses an elementary nose and breasts indicating a female figure. This generalised human form evokes sculpture of a much earlier period, for example from ancient Greece or Egypt. There are echoes of the sculpture of Giacometti, whom Turnbull met in the 1940s in Paris.

Gallery label, August 2004

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