“the history of sculpture is also a history of the body” (Tom Flynn, The body in three dimensions)
In modern times sculpture more than other visual arts has remained attached to figuration (and especially to the human body as subject matter) even when detaching from all the canonical ideals of beauty. During the 1950s when several artists in different fields became interested in an alternative representation of beauty (art brut and new-Brutalism in architecture for instance), likewise sculpture successfully combined realism with humanism, re-injecting previous modernist achievements with an interest in the human condition. The human body and subject was in particular a source of endless inspiration for many British sculptors of those years including British artist Ralph Brown who over 60 years never ceased to explore the infinite possibilities offered by the subject.
The exhibition Ralph Brown RA: A Memorial Exhibition, which revisits the recently passed away artist’s work, is opening this Friday at Pangolin London and offers a unique opportunity to see his work and to reflect on the evergreen power and contemporary value of the sculptor’s unique research. Exclusively dedicated to exhibiting sculpture the gallery had already promoted the artist’s work with previous shows including a retrospective exhibition in 2009.
Like his older contemporary colleagues Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, he studied at Leeds College of Art (he also attended the Hammersmith Art Schools and the Royal College of Art) and he sourced inspiration from major modern sculptors such as Rodin, Alberto Giacometti and Medardo Rosso as well as from the Mediterranean figurative sculptors of the 1950s. He defined himself as “Mediterranean sculptor with no gothic” and “image maker” (in relation to the use of drawing as essential key for sculpture).
Among the most famous works we remember Meat Porters – firstly realised under commission of Harlow Art Trust for Harlow market square at the end of the 1950s and then reproduced in several editions (one will be on display at the exhibition) – as well as Queen, which also counts several editions throughout Brown’s career, and the Swimming series. Apart from the already mentioned piece Meat Porter the show mostly displays early works of the artist from the 1950s and 1960s such as Vernal Figure (1957), Woman Bathing (1960), Boxer Head (1963), Swimming (1959-60),and Figure Head (1963).
Alongside and related to his interest in the study of the human body is the way Brown masterly interpreted and read the real world. John Berger, important critic and supporter of the artist, associated Brown’s work with the one of other British artists defined by him as “social realists”. Berger claimed: “the realist is fundamentally optimistic…he may well face up to ugliness or injustice more squarely than most, but because he is concerned with dealing with the world as it exists, and not comparing it to romantic ideals, or with seeking consolation for its shortcomings in private dreams, he need never give away to despair.” (John Berger in Looking Forward exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1952).
Assuming Berger’s point of view we can read Brown’s privileged subject of the body as a starting point to embrace the totality of human life experience (Brown’s work has been associated to Christopher Finch’s definition of the body as “conceptual departure”). The artist’s sculptures reveal to the viewer all the qualities of human life, once savage once sensual, once social once political, once introspective. Looking at the blurred features and disfigured images of some of his sculptures we face a double challenge and effect: on one hand, as Gillian Whiteley has observed, the pieces challenge us with “qualities of otherness”, of the unknown and of anonymity; while at the same time we recognize in all these figures familiar and personal parts of ourselves and the world we live in.
How can sculpture challenge our minds in looking at the real world? What can we learn from Brown’s way of looking at the art form?