How the Bird­man flew into a new home

This month’s Art Fund col­umn looks at the work of sculp­tor Elis­a­beth Frink and how the na­tional char­ity brought her work to York­shire.

Yorkshire Post - Culture & The Guide - - ART -

LEEDS Art Gallery is renowned for hav­ing one of the most ex­ten­sive col­lec­tions of 20th cen­tury Bri­tish sculp­ture on dis­play in the UK, but un­til last sum­mer it was miss­ing a key work.

The Leeds Sculp­ture Col­lec­tion is par­tic­u­larly strong in works from the 1950s and 60s and vis­i­tors can ex­pe­ri­ence works by such im­pres­sive post-war sculp­tors as Ken­neth Ar­mitage, Ed­uardo Paolozzi, Austin Wright, Ge­of­frey Clarke, Lynn Chad­wick, Wil­liam Turn­bull and Bernard Mead­ows, all of whom were con­tem­po­raries of Elis­a­beth Frink.

Hap­pily, last year the Art Fund was able to help plug this gap in the gallery’s col­lec­tion by fa­cil­i­tat­ing the gift of a life-size plas­ter ma­que­tte of her work Bird­man to the gallery. Gifted by the Frink Es­tate and Beaux Arts, Lon­don, the piece was val­ued at £250,000 at the time.

Bird­man, stand­ing at 190cm tall, rep­re­sents a half man, half bird fig­ure. The male form, along with an­i­mals such as dogs, horses and birds, was a ma­jor theme for Frink which she re­turned to time and again through­out her ca­reer. The piece it­self is dis­tinc­tive for its spindly limbs and slight torso cap­tur­ing the frail, vul­ner­a­ble side of man.

Al­though we don’t know the pre­cise inspiration for this piece, which is be­lieved to date from 1958-9, it is thought Frink may have been cap­ti­vated by a story in Paris-Match about the death of a real-life “bird­man” Léo Valentin, who had fallen to earth while wear­ing wooden wings in an at­tempt to fly.

Her ex­plo­ration of the idea of a “winged man” was also likely to have been in­flu­enced by a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence – a boyfriend of hers had been in the Air Force and was badly in­jured when his para­chute failed to in­flate.

The col­lec­tion at Leeds has a spe­cial re­mit to rep­re­sent the fun­da­men­tals of Bri­tish sculp­ture al­low­ing it to ac­quire mod­els and ma­que­ttes as well as fi­nal works mak­ing it the ideal home for this piece where it can be ap­pro­pri­ately cared for and dis­played.

When Bird­man was un­veiled in Leeds, Frink’s son, Lin Jam­met, who is the man­ager of her es­tate said: “It was very im­por­tant to us to find a good home for the Bird­man plas­ter, some­where it would be seen by the pub­lic rather than just stuck in store await­ing dis­play.

“It’s a re­ally im­por­tant piece be­cause it gives you a sense of the speed and spon­tane­ity with which my mother worked, show­ing how she’d model quickly in plas­ter, and then carve the form back.”

Jam­met also has an­other the­ory about his mother’s inspiration for the piece: “With its em­bry­onic wings the Bird­man is the epit­ome of the way she saw man, as ca­pa­ble of great hero­ism – like her sol­dier fa­ther whom she wor­shipped – but also hugely vul­ner­a­ble.”

Com­ment­ing on the donors’ de­ci­sion to gift the work through the Art Fund, Di­rec­tor Stephen Deuchar said: “We thank the Frink Es­tate and Beaux Arts for choos­ing to give Bird­man through the Art Fund, and we en­cour­age any­one – whether a gal­lerist or pri­vate col­lec­tor – who might be do­nat­ing a work of art to con­sider do­ing so through us. We work hard to en­sure that each gift is placed in a pub­lic col­lec­tion that will look af­ter it well and present it to its best ad­van­tage.”

The Art Fund has helped to bring three other works by the artist into UK pub­lic col­lec­tions. In 1998 the Art Fund gave Tate a grant to­wards the pur­chase of a bronze sculp­ture Dy­ing King and in 2009 an­other bronze work, Chinese Horse III, was gifted through the Art Fund to the New Art Gallery Wal­sall.

Sculp­tor Elis­a­beth Frink in her stu­dio, top, and her sculp­ture Bird­man, above left and right, which has been gifted to Leeds Art Gallery by the Art Fund.


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