William Turnbull

Idol 4


Not on display

William Turnbull 1922–2012
Object: 1663 × 435 × 492 mm, 55 kg
Purchased 1990


Between 1955 and 1957 William Turnbull made a series of five free-standing sculptures titled Idol. Idol 4, cast in an edition of four, is the fourth in the series, and like the rest of the works it is slightly smaller than the average height of an adult. In contrast to the Renaissance tradition, continued in Britain during the 1950s by such sculptors as Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and Henry Moore (1898-1986), in which a sculpture fluently unfolds 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).

Of all the pieces in the series Idol 4 is the least clearly gendered. Unlike the other works in which Turnbull pressed corrugated paper into the wet plaster of the model to create surface texture, the surface Idol 4 is relatively smooth and bodily features are indicated only by dots and finely incised lines. The head, an important motif in Turnbull's paintings and other sculptures at this time, is here reduced to a narrow point, with only a discreet vertical line indicating the nose.

Richard Morphet has noted that Idol 4 shares with Idol 1 and 2 (Tate T05801) 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 the series are emotionally understated and appear 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 4, 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 4 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

Like 'Idol 2', also in the Tate's collection, this is one of a series of Idols made in the later half of the 1950s, when the artist was refining and streamlining images based on the human silhouette. Unlike 'Idol 2', where vestigal nose and breasts remain to identify the figure, in this work the features have been incised into the surface while the contours of the sculpture remain smooth and minimal. The simplified form suggests sculpture from a much earlier period, perhaps an object of veneration from an ancient civilization.

Gallery label, August 2004

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