Reg Butler 1913-1981

Provenance

Matisse Family 

Private Collection, New York

Exhibitions

1983, London, Tate Gallery, Reg Butler, 16 Nov. 1983 - 15 Jan. 1984, cat. no. 64 (another edition exhibited)

1986, London, Gimpel Fils, Reg Butler: Musée Imaginaire: Bronzes, Middle & Late Period, 10 Sept. - 11 Oct. 1986, cat. no. 25 (another edition exhibited)

Literature

Reg Butler, 1983, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, p. 69 (another edition illustrated)

Margaret Garlake, The Sculpture of Reg Butler, 2006, Henry Moore Foundation, p. 165, cat. no. 235 (another cast illustrated)

Reg Butler was born in Buntingford, Hertfordshire in 1913, and began making sculpture in 1944 without formal training. He was briefly Henry Moore's assistant in 1948 and he held his first one-man show at the Hanover Gallery, London in 1949. In 1952 he was selected for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and in 1953 he won first prize in an international competition organised by the Institute of Contemporary Art for a 'Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner', over such established artists as Alexander Calder and Barbara Hepworth. Although the final sculpture was never realised, a model is in the collection of the Tate London and the competition established Butler's reputation as amongst the finest British sculptors of his generation, and his inclusion in the 1952 'New Aspects of British Sculpture' positioned him as a promising modernist. Butler returned to a more figurative style form the late 1950s through to the 1960s, particularly taking young women as the subject for his sculptures. Butler was an articulate writer, lecturer and radio broadcaster, and taught at the Slade School of Fine Art between 1951 and 1980. His work can be found in most major public collections. He died in 1981.

From the mid 1950s, Butler began working on his sculptures of young girls, the theme for which he is arguably most remembered. Butler made realist drawings of contorted naked female figures from the late 1950s onwards, moving away from the spiky, iron sculpture that had previously dominated his work. Butler saw himself working in a tradition of the female nude such as the "slant-eye bitches" painted by Lucas Cranach, and the "hairy, sweaty, grainy flesh" of Pierre Bonnard's naked figures, as he himself stated. In the 1980 Townsend Memorial Lecture he gave, just a few months before his death, he argued that "any artist concerned with making naked ladies must struggle to preserve a balance between lust and compassion - the balance he wants to make his work right for him". Butler's sculpture of girls are characteristically tinged with eroticism - many of the girls are in the process of undressing exposing genitalia. Butler continued in his lecture that "I am often appalled by their submissiveness. I see a mood of exuberance turn in a moment into terrifying dislocation. At the flick of my wrist a leg may be amputated or an arm shifted into an impossible position." By the late 1960s Butler was sculpting huge, life-size women in bronze, draped over bases, which he then painted white and added real human hair.

In 1960, Reg Butler had an exhibition at his gallery, Hanover Gallery, entitled 'Sculpture'. This exhibition was dominated by sculptures of girls depicted in movement - a common motif throughout the exhibition was that of a girl suspended in motion above a 'wheel' (a circular base) to which she was attached by rods. Amongst these girls was 'Saint Catherine', a figure from Butler's Saint Catherine group of the late 1950s, overtly suggesting Butler's continual fascination with sadism, and the Freudian connection between pleasure and pain. Eroticism manifested itself in Butler's depiction of the distended female form, with extended bodies at the apex of tautness heightening the sensuality of the bronze girls. Butler was commissioned by the London County Council to produce a sculpture for the new Recreational Centre at Crystal Palace, and 'Girl on Round Base' is a preparatory work for the un-realised public work. In 1963 the Council withdrew their commission, stating that a female nude would be entirely out of keeping with the surroundings. 'Girl on Round Base' from 1964 demonstrates Butler's fasciation with the shapes of the female body and the formal qualities of a 'wheel' or 'round base'. The sinuous curves of the girl's body are created very much in the round, with the stretching of the upper torso both sideways and forward - a multitude of three-dimensional serpentine angles are produced. Unlike other more pubescent girls in Butler's oeuvre, this girl has a womanly form - prominent hips, waist and chest. Butler's interest in the part-object or the fragment, again a Freudian theme, is also apparent in 'Girl on Round Base'. As with so many of his figure sculptures, the girl has no feet: instead her legs join directly with the base so that the two elements become a uniform whole. The circular base suggests movement, and echoes the curvature oft he human body, whilst also encouraging total in the round viewing.