Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005

Provenance

Private Collection, acquired directly from the artist

Literature

Judith Collins, Eduardo Paolozzi, 2014, Lund Humphries, pp. 259-260
Newton After Blake relates to an artistic project which Eduardo Paolozzi began in 1987 and which later came to include a commission for the British Library. Paolozzi harboured a fascination for Isaac Newton, who he regarded as a pivotal figure in the development of Western thought. Newton was the scientist and mathematician who introduced order into a chaotic universe, providing laws to account for the motion of planets and observing for the first time that light is composed of coloured rays. One of the first appearances that Newton made in Paolozzi’s work was a plaster relief of 1987. The mechanical identity of this Newton relief was evoked by large, bolt-like pivots depicted at the joints of the figure; Paolozzi cunningly used the same circular motif as the hinge of the compasses which Newton holds, thus attributing the same mathematical character to both the instrument and its user. In line with Paolozzi’s eclectic approach to materials, that relief was subsequently worked in both alabaster and bronze, in addition to plaster.

In 1988, the relief was followed by a three-dimensional model depicting the same hunched figure. Each of Paolozzi’s three-dimensional Newton After Blake sculptures, including this work, belong to a continuum between cyborg and human figure types. This specific plaster cast demonstrates a strong mechanical quality. A number of geometric, gear-like ribs join the figure together, suggesting that this particular figure of Newton was engineered rather than born. Somewhat startlingly, this plaster cast had its cranium removed and reapplied in a subtly rotated position – as if the top of the head was removed to allow for the brain to be inserted. By contrast, a bronze maquette of the subject (1988, Tate Collection) is notably organic, the surface of the skin being unbroken and bestowed with a carefully defined musculature.

In the late 1980s, Paolozzi’s figure of Newton was selected as a suitable monument to stand in the forecourt of the new British Library. He was friends with the library’s architect, Colin St John Wilson, who came across the Newton sculpture in Paolozzi’s studio one day. It satisfied St John Wilson’s criteria exactly, as he later explained.

To give some flesh to my own thinking I had made a drawing of a monumental seated figure… but I had kept the idea to myself. Imagine then my delight when, some months later, on one of my visits to Eduardo’s studio, I saw the maquette of a monumental seated figure mysteriously leaning over to perform some strange ritual!

Accordingly, Paolozzi made his Newton into a monumental, three-metre-high centrepiece. The project lasted for three years, from 1994 until its unveiling in 1997. During this period, Paolozzi put the model of his Newton figure to work in various other uses. A limited, unspecified number of one-off plaster sculptures was produced, including this cast which Paolozzi gifted to a friend.

The imagery of Newton After Blake has an arcane art historical lineage. The composition of a hunched figure, manipulating a pair of compasses on the floor between his open legs, was initially suggested by William Blake’s colour monotype print, Newton (1795–c. 1805, Tate Collection). For Blake, Isaac Newton was the enemy of imagination, placing material limits on our perception of creation and the universe. Paolozzi himself explained this in an interview with Robin Spencer.

The 1795 image of Sir Isaac Newton... has fascinated me for many years. Blake shows Newton surrounded by the glories of nature but, oblivious to the beauty, concentrates on reducing the universe to mathematical dimensions. Blake was no admirer of Newton and meant this work to be a critical assessment of the scientist's preoccupations. The work says different things to me. Here we have the work of two British geniuses presenting to us simultaneously nature and science - welded, interconnecting, interdependent. The link is the classically beautiful body of Newton crouched in a position reminiscent of Rodin's Thinker. Newton sits on nature, using it as a base for his work. His back is bent in work, not submission, and his figure echoes the shape of rock and coral. He is part of nature…

Beyond his response to Blake and Rodin, the classical ideal of a perfectly proportioned figure also informed Paolozzi’s sculpture of Newton. Blake’s Newton is depicted with a Michelangelesque musculature, and one of his sources for the print was in fact the figure of Abias, an ancestor of Christ, depicted in a lunette of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Through Blake, therefore, Paolozzi absorbed a bold style of figural modelling from the great Renaissance artist – an unexpected but pleasing reference in his eclectic, post-modern practice.

As well as responding to many art historical precedents, Paolozzi is noted for his distinctive, personal adaptation of reproductive methods. He spoke of each sculpture being an individual work, whether it was a clay model or a cast of plaster or bronze. He would patinate each bronze himself, in some cases reworking the cast with files and other tools. In the case of this plaster cast Newton After Blake, the sides of the plaster figure have been perforated with small round pegs of wood. The pegs dissimilate as joints in the mechanical body, being inserted at the shoulders, hips and knees. Akin to Frankenstein’s monster, Paolozzi’s Newton is a carefully wrought, hand-worked sculpture, full of with asymmetric life.