Sculp­tor HELAINE BLUMENFELD’s or­ganic forms con­vey a com­pelling nar­ra­tive of re­newal, en­ergy and hope, ob­serves so­nia kolesnikov-jes­sop

Prestige (Malaysia) - - Contents -

Or­ganic forms

con­vey a com­pelling nar­ra­tive of re­newal en­ergy

stand­ing at 3m tall on the front lawn of the over-900-year-old Ely Cathe­dral in Cam­bridgeshire, Eng­land, Helaine Blumenfeld’s large bronze sculp­ture is made of three mon­u­men­tal pieces and evokes three tor­sos pos­si­bly car­ry­ing one an­other.

As it’s of­ten with the sculp­tor’s very or­ganic works, the three blocks in a lovely green patina could have been con­fig­ured dif­fer­ently. Here they pro­vide just enough room for the viewer to stand among them and feel em­braced by the form.

“This is a com­plex piece. Peo­ple have to give some­thing of them­selves to it; it doesn’t just speak to them, they have to speak back to the work,” re­marks the Amer­i­can, who is re­garded as among the most im­por­tant sculp­tors of her gen­er­a­tion. She is also of­ten de­scribed as an heir ap­par­ent to Henry Moore, with whom she had a joint ex­hi­bi­tion in 1985 in New York.

Blumenfeld says she wanted the work, ti­tled Il­lu­sion, to cre­ate a sense of fore­bod­ing. “If you are in­side, you’re feel­ing con­tained by it, but it’s not tran­quil, it’s not har­mo­nious. It re­flects, in a sense, the world we’re liv­ing in, which is not quite in har­mony, al­most in dishar­mony, and yet it also shows how it could look har­mo­nious and how the pieces can give each other strength.”

The cel­e­brated artist has spent most of her ca­reer ex­press­ing very per­sonal feel­ings such as love, hope and de­spair, but more re­cently her ab­stracted forms have been re­spond­ing to de­vel­op­ments in the wider world. “I’m over­whelmed by the world we live in, by the lack of sta­bil­ity, by the chaos, and com­plete lack of lead­er­ship. We are for­get­ting we are all hu­man and are all part of some­thing that is more im­por­tant than dif­fer­ences,” she says, although she in­sists she’s still an op­ti­mist.

Il­lu­sion is part of a large-scale ex­hi­bi­tion at Ely Cathe­dral, run­ning un­til Oc­to­ber 28, which brings to­gether 17 bronze and mar­ble sculp­tures by the artist, in­clud­ing seven new works. These are pre­sented in­side and out­side the cathe­dral.

Ti­tled Tree of Life, the ex­hi­bi­tion is named af­ter an im­por­tant se­ries she cre­ated, which started in re­sponse to a com­ment from her mother on the “to­tal ab­sence of spir­i­tu­al­ity” of Holo­caust memo­ri­als, which she felt had failed to con­vey the im­mense loss felt then and for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Years later, Blumenfeld cre­ated a sculp­ture that looked like a tree trunk formed by many bod­ies, twisted and turn­ing, which stretched out into a maze of branches. Tree of Life be­gan with three strands that were some­times in op­po­si­tion and other times in con­flict, but as they moved up­wards some­how merged and opened not into de­struc­tion, but into a canopy of hope and beauty.

As Blumenfeld ex­plains, “I was try­ing to ex­press that, although there had been al­most un­be­liev­able de­struc­tion, there could still be [pos­i­tive] re­newal and re­gen­er­a­tion. This is the mes­sage I want peo­ple to take away; what­ever our dif­fer­ences, we can come to­gether and re­spect one an­other’s dif­fer­ences, we can have a world that flour­ishes.”

Her sculp­tures have of­ten been de­scribed as full of vi­tal­ity and, quite de­lib­er­ately, with a sen­su­al­ity that in­vites view­ers to touch them.

“As chil­dren we learn so much by feel­ing with our hands. There is an­other di­men­sion to be gained from my work by us­ing your hand over the sur­face. The slight un­du­la­tion of a sur­face could re­mind some­one of a mother’s arms. I be­lieve if you are open to it, sculp­ture can take you some­where else within your­self,” she says.

As a child, Blumenfeld had vivid dreams or night vi­sions she never could quite de­scribe, be­cause “putting those into words would have peo­ple look at me and say, ‘What?’”. It was her search to ex­press these oc­cur­rences that led her to sculp­ture, af­ter do­ing a PhD in moral phi­los­o­phy at Columbia Univer­sity in New York.

“I first thought it was a mat­ter of lan­guage or ideas, so I just kept get­ting more words, more ideas, more philo­sophic con­cepts, but I could still not come close to what I wanted to de­scribe.”

“Then there was a mo­ment with my hus­band in the Na­tional Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum of Naples, when I came across very small Cy­cladic heads from 2,500BC. Although each had only one fea­ture, it gave a fan­tas­tic idea of what that per­son was like. I sud­denly felt maybe I was look­ing at the wrong lan­guage, it wasn’t words, it was go­ing to be some­thing more vis­ual,”

“From one view, you might see har­mony, from an­other an an­gel or some­thing spir­i­tual, and as you walk around you draw in what the sculp­ture is about”

Blumenfeld re­calls.

So when her hus­band got a job in Paris, she de­cided to fol­low him there and study sculp­ture. “Im­me­di­ately af­ter we got our first bed­sit, I got some clay and I was shocked by how I was able to trans­fer very com­plex ideas into form,” she says.

Her kitchen-table work was im­pres­sive enough for a spot at the École des Beaux-Arts, but she even­tu­ally went to the Académie de la Grande Chau­mière in Mont­par­nasse, Paris, where artists such as Alexan­der Calder, Joan Miro and Ta­mara de Lem­picka had also stud­ied.

There she be­came the stu­dent of Rus­sian émi­gré and Cu­bist sculp­tor Os­sip Zad­kine (1890– 1967). “Zad­kine be­lieved you should carve ev­ery­thing, so I learnt to carve wood when I was vis­it­ing him, I learnt to work with clay and he even in­structed me to start with some pieces of mar­ble,” she says.

In the mid-1970s, Blu­men­feld­went to Pietrasanta in Tus­cany’s Apuan Alps, whose mar­ble quar­ries were made fa­mous by Michelan­gelo. She fell un­der the spell of the translu­cent stat­u­ary white mar­ble, which she felt helped her best ex­press a spir­i­tu­al­ity in her work.

By then she and her hus­band were liv­ing in Grantch­ester, near Cam­bridge, and she de­cided to join Sem Ghe­lar­dini’s sculp­ture stu­dio, which was pro­duc­ing works for Henry Moore, César Bal­dac­cini and Barry Flana­gan, among oth­ers. Blumenfeld started to ap­pren­tice with se­nior ar­ti­sans here.

“I was very for­tu­nate be­cause in those days you still had ar­ti­sans who spe­cialised in cer­tain parts, some only did the nose or the hand. There was an ar­ti­san in his eight­ies who only did roses out of mar­ble [us­ing] an an­cient tech­nique that the Greeks used when they did pleats on robes. You do this with a very tiny chisel, as if you were a den­tist, and make very lit­tle holes and then open it up.”

That tech­nique has re­mained with her. “Although I’m not cre­at­ing flow­ers, I’m us­ing the same tech­nique. My work is not just one sur­face, but there is a lot of lay­er­ing; I go un­der and cre­ate an­other sur­face,” she ex­plains.

Learn­ing to master her medium of choice was “very hard work and took a long time”, but she says it was the only way to get any re­spect in a very male-ori­en­tated realm: “You had to show you could work the same hours as the men, that you could learn the métier.”

To­day, the sculp­tor has a stu­dio in Pietrasanta where her mar­ble pieces are pro­duced.

Blumenfeld gets up early in the morn­ing and heads straight to her stu­dio to work on small clay mod­els or ma­que­ttes, which are the start­ing point for her works, to “draw” her night vi­sions in 3D.

“This cap­tures the mo­ment and the idea, then I up­scale. I work quite dif­fer­ently from most artists who still work in clay. I have never used an ar­ma­ture, an in­ner struc­ture. I al­ways work with clay and work un­til some­thing hap­pens. That means five or six starts that I won’t pur­sue. When I have some­thing I be­lieve in, a sculp­ture I want to go for­ward with, then I start en­larg­ing,” the artist says of her work process.

She works with some­one who me­chan­i­cally recre­ates the model, again in clay, but this time with an ar­ma­ture. “Then I take it back to my own stu­dio and work on it, change it enor­mously. Af­ter that we make it in plas­ter, which will be given to my mar­ble stu­dio. I’ll go there to choose the mar­ble. I won’t be go­ing to t he quarry, but to a yard where I see the block al­ready cut out. I go to the quarry to be ro­manced by the mar­ble, but I pre­fer to see the ac­tual block.”

Blumenfeld’s work was ini­tially fig­ure- and ges­ture-based, but she has ab­stracted those to con­vey more in­tense emo­tion while re­tain­ing the move­ment and en­ergy. The am­bi­gu­ity in her works leaves view­ers free to in­ter­pret these ab­strac­tions.

“I like my works to of­fer dif­fer­ent feel­ings from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. From one view, you might see har­mony, from an­other an an­gel or some­thing spir­i­tual, and as you walk around you can ab­sorb and draw in what the sculp­ture is about.”



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