Kenneth Armitage 1916-2002

Provenance

Osborne Samuel Ltd (Stock number 19710)
Private Collection

Exhibitions

20th Century British Art, Osborne Samuel, London 23 October - 22 November 2014

Unspecified cast:
Recent Sculpture by Kenneth Armitage, Gimpel Fils, October–November 1957 (12, repr., unspecified cast)
29 Biennale Internazionale d'Arte, Venice, June–October 1958 (71, unspecified cast)
5e Biennale voor Beeldhouwkunst Middelheimpark, Antwerp, May–September 1959 (unspecified cast)
11 Documenta, Kassel, July–October 1959 (repr., unspecified cast)
A retrospective exhibition of sculpture and drawings based on the XXIX Venice Biennale of 1958, initially organised by the British Council, Whitechapel Art Gallery, July–August 1959 (24, repr., unspecified cast)

Literature

Alan Bowness, Kenneth Armitage: Life and Work, p46 (London : Lund
Humphries, 1997), KA54 ill. b/w
Norbert Lynton, Kenneth Armitage, (London : Methuen, 1962) ill. b/w
Toby Treves, British Art in Focus: Patrons¹ Papers, (London : Tate, 2004)
James Scott (assisted by Claudia Milburn), There Sculpture of Kenneth Armitage, (London: Lund Humphries, 2016), p.40 fig. 16 & p.105 cat. 155
Kenneth Armitage rose to prominence as part of a generation of sculptors which included Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, William Turnbull, Reg Butler, and Edwardo Paolozzi. He had studied at Leeds College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art before serving in the British Army during World War Two, but it was only after the war that he became internationally famous as part of this prodigious group of young men. Introducing them at the 1952 Venice Biennale, the curator, critic and poet, Herbert Read identified their shared interest in ‘images of flight, of ragged claws “scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear’. This definition placed Armitage and his peers within a particularly defined historical moment. The Cold War and existential angst dominated interpretations of their work from this point forward. In 1958 Armitage returned to Venice to claim the prize of the best international sculptor under the age of forty-five and establish himself in the uppermost echelons of the British sculptural canon.

It was between these two visits to Venice that Armitage first conceived the present work, Seated Woman. He lived between London and Leeds during this time, and faced the common hardships of sustained rationing and the all too visible scars left across the nation’s cities from air raids of the preceding years. In contrast to those dramatic years of action and combat, the enduring political antagonism of the Cold War represented an anti-climax: no new world of peaceful reverie was built, only ennui and a strained bass-note of anxiety remained. Seated Woman’s sloped shoulders and limp limbs reflect this overwhelming sense of despondency and hopelessness. Her rock-like head also carries this impression. Heavy and inert, the figure appears numb to the world around it.

Yet, 1955 was a busy year full of hope for Armitage. Following touring exhibitions around North America he gradually moved to Paul Rosenberg Gallery in New York. His time as the Gregory Fellow at Leeds University and as Head of Sculpture at Bath Academy of Art was coming to an end, leaving him with a firm foundation for his career. In light of these events, there exists a parallel note of calm repose in this work. The figure appears to bear the hardships of the world around it with centred assurance of a brighter future. Art historian Richard Cork has described the “tender rather than tragic” quality of this kind of figurative work by the artist, noting Armitage’s technique is “closer to Henry Moore’s bronzes than to the strategies pioneered by Butler or Chadwick.” By clothing the structural wires of his model more heavily in clay, Armitage associated his figure with drapery of Moore’s wartime drawing of seated or reclining figures.

This ambivalence in Armitage’s sculpture – its tendency to be variously drawn to different interpretations – has fuelled interest in his work, and is a characteristic he shared with his closest peers, namely Paolozzi and Turnbull. Like Turnbull, Armitage also held a keen interest in pre-classical sculpture and pottery. Cycladic heads, ancient war and fertility icons, and pre-historic monoliths inform his work in this important early period. Seated Woman, as one of the earliest instances of Armitage presenting a tall square body, and with its emphasis on the breast and navel, is a prime example of these influences. Like Paolozzi, Armitage’s figures shift from everyday associations – human rest and flight, ennui and self-preservation – to far-reaching associations with the mechanised modern world. Together, both Paolozzi and Armitage consider the material and spiritual stresses of their age.

This cast, known as the artist’s cast, was made in 1986, though the sculpture was conceived in 1955. Initial casts of this work (one of which varies slightly, known as Version B) were included in Armitage’s 1958 Venice Biennale exhibition, and a major retrospective subsequently held at the Whitechapel Gallery. One is also held in Tate’s representative collection of Armitage’s early work. Viewing this piece in the round to include its rear is vital, the figure’s sharp shoulder blades give way to rough scrapings of the artists fingers below. Aggression and skeletal qualities result, as if the seated woman had been attacked or flagellated – her body reduced to base physical vulnerability. Richard Cork is justified in seeing such a figure as tender, but this tenderness ultimately emphasises its status as flesh, its susceptibility to impact or damage, and its tragic qualities. Seated Woman’s monolithic, stoic nature (like Chadwick’s The Watchers, 1960) bears witness to Armitage’s unrivalled balance between human sensitivities and existential challenges, situating it as a work central to understanding Armitage and his milieu.