William Turnbull

Metamorphosis 2


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Not on display

William Turnbull 1922–2012
Object: 400 × 413 × 48 mm
Presented by the Sainsbury Charitable Fund through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1981

Catalogue entry


Stamped ‘T’ and inscribed ‘4/9’ and ‘80’ at bottom of reverse
Bronze, 15 3/4 × 16 1/4 × 1 15/16 (40 × 41.3 × 5)
Presented by the Sainsbury Charitable Fund through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1981
Prov: the artist; Waddington Galleries
Lit: The Friends of the Tate Gallery Annual Report 1st May 1981–30th April 1982, 1982, p.12 (repr.)

This and the following two works are among a large group of sculptures which Turnbull has been producing since the late 1970s. One cast each from the same editions as the Tate's three works was among the sixteen works from this group exhibited and reproduced in Turnbull's exhibition at Waddington Galleries, March–April 1981. This and the following two entries are based on Turnbull's replies in conversation on 17 December 1982 and have been approved by him.

From shortly before his Tate Gallery retrospective of 1973, Turnbull virtually ceased making sculpture for several years. He has always believed that an artist should make work only if he feels it ‘wants to be made’, and for a time this feeling was absent for sculpture. Moreover, he considered that in principle a break was not undesirable, to avoid the danger of his becoming trapped by his own images (there have been gaps of this kind before in Turnbull's work as painter or sculptor, and at the time of writing he has not painted for two or three years).

When he did resume sculptural activity in about 1976, he felt the need to do so as far as possible completely innocently or from a blank and totally open frame of mind, free of any kind of assumption as to what the work would be like. In some ways, his situation recalled the one he found himself in in Paris in the late 1940s when, being near the beginning of his career as a sculptor, and thus having only a small body of work, he was without a clear-cut example to follow that was peculiarly his own. As then, he had critically to examine whatever emerged from his working process until he found among it something he felt he could verify for himself. Now in the mid-1970s, probably in reaction to the enormous scale that much contemporary sculpture had assumed, he found himself working on an extremely small scale, making objects quickly in clay and hardly looking at them before putting them away in boxes. When after a time he spread them out to view, they seemed to reveal an implicit vocabulary of shapes with which he could identify.

The broadly suggested motifs of head and torso related them to Turnbull's work of the 1950s. An equally strong link with this period lay in their concentrated revival of tactility. Now as then this was through bronze, but whereas the bronzes of the 1950s were taken from plaster originals, the new work was formed in clay, a more tactile substance which Turnbull had not used before. In order as far as possible to retain the delicate nuances of handling in their surfaces these were then cast direct from the dry clay, without the interposition of plaster. The terracotta originals survive.

When he made the first of these sculptures, Turnbull thought of them as objects to be handled, and to be placed on a flat surface direct. However, as the group developed the newer works proved larger on the whole, requiring a different solution for public display. Turnbull regards them nevertheless as being more tactile than optical. Though shown on simple bases, they are not made on stands, and though each must be effective as a form in space, they are totally self-contained objects. The relationship between the surface of each bronze and the marks made on it is vital. Turnbull intends that the skin of bronze shall hold the viewer as he moves right round it, so that he will experience a kind of ‘tactile space’. There is a parallel with Turnbull's paintings of the 1970s, where his refusal to carry the main colour field the whole way to the edge of the painting surface demonstrated his resistance to making paintings that would be spatial in depth. It also showed the corresponding importance he attached to each mark being perceived as a mark. In reacting, in the new sculptures, against his own sculpture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Turnbull sought to create something in which structure would be more implied than emphasised, and more closely married with tactility.

For all the casts of a given sculpture in this new group, Turnbull generally chooses a single patina. He sees its hue as a kind of accent, which affects the emotional experience of the work. But this aspect of the sculpture is of much less importance than its shape; in this respect he sees a much stronger connection between the new works and those of the 1960s than might at first be thought. At present he is unable to see many of this group of sculptures on any scale other than their present size. However, although public sculpture is not at present very much in his thoughts, he can visualise certain sculptures in the group on a much larger scale.

There is a relationship between these sculptures and Turnbull's drawing from observation but it is not one for one. Even when drawing from observation Turnbull is not particularly naturalistic, but is concerned with rhythm and shape; the sculptures are a synthesis of shapes in the world. They are also metaphors. It was, for example, in order to free the sculptures to work in this way that Turnbull reduced the length of some of the fingers in ‘Arm’ 1980 (reproduced in the catalogue of his 1981 Waddington Galleries exhibition); the hand thereby gained something of the quality of a leaf (among other readings) while losing none of its sense of a hand. In each of this group of works he seeks a sculptural metaphor which is multi-referential; its associations must therefore be as much with different phenomena as with the figure itself. For this reason the image cannot be too specific. As an archetype its richness and concentration will paradoxically result from its very openness.

Primitive art is as often a trigger for his sculpture as is the observed world. Once when he pinned on a board reproductions of about thirty representations of heads from all periods, he found that the further from naturalism the treatment, the more real a head was for him. However, as with visual experiences in the natural world which feed into the sculpture, there is no one for one relationship with earlier art. Often Turnbull does not notice an object in a museum which has a close connection with one of his works until after his is complete (as with the similarity between some of his recent sculptures and flints - which also, like his works, often resemble the female figure).

Throughout the period during which this group of sculptures has been emerging Turnbull has continually made numerous very brief, simple and basic drawn notations of shape. Within a family of forms which are closely linked and which in a sense merge one with another, this is a means not only of discovering but also of generating variations. Turnbull's way of proceeding is the reverse of programmatic. He delights in the physical act of handling and forming the material, and in its naturalness, as if making bread. As for decades past he continues to give a major role to chance, being averse to sculpture as a totally willed process. The act of making impressions in a receptive surface affords an ideal balance between deliberation and intuition. In this process, as in that of drawing his swift notations, one thing can quickly turn into another. A steadily changing form is fixed, to become a work, when it feels right.

Since Turnbull's 1981 exhibition his sculptures have shown a greater interest in volume, some using a ‘mandolin’ shape and others almost cylindrical forms. This development is implicit in sculptures of the period of those in the Tate, as a side view of these shows. At the same time the sculptures' outlines have tended to become clearer and less fluid.

Works such as ‘Metamorphosis 2’ and ‘Axe-Head Torso’ relate both to the human torso and to the head, as well as to other motifs. In either of these readings what is shown is a fragment of the whole figure, and yet the work is complete. This paradox relates to the notion, prevalent in primitive societies, that the representation of a part stands for the whole, an idea central to Turnbull's ‘Horse’ 1954 in the Tate's collection, T01381. The marks made in the surface offer numerous readings and were not made with any one reading in mind. Turnbull observes that if he tried to make such marks meaningful they would feel artificial and would not look right. In all his sculptures of this group the marks invite the eye to move about the surface and to penetrate it. They convey a sense of time - time through millennia, the artist's time in making the marks, and the viewer's in encompassing them. They are also a further means of ‘scrambling’ the references in each work and thus of augmenting its metaphoric potential.

'Metamorphosis 1’, also of 1980, is slightly smaller than ‘Metamorphosis 2’ and is intermediate in form between it and ‘Axe-Head Torso’.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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