Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal
Inscribed Mackennal London
Dated June 12 1894 London and stamped with the foundry mark E. Gruet Fondeur 44 Avenue de Chatillon Paris (Edmond Gruet, 1863-1904)
Bronze, with rich dark brown patination
Height: 24" (61 cm)
Conceived 1894 and cast prior to 1904
Sir Bertram Mackennal was born in Melbourne in 1863. He originally received his education from his father, John Simpson Mackennal, before enrolling in the School of Design in Melbourne from 1878 to 1882. In 1883 he moved to London to study at the British Museum before gaining a place at the Royal Academy. However, the young sculptor soon felt trapped by the academic teaching methods of the Academy and at nineteen years of age he decided to abandon his studies and set up a studio for himself. He focused on visiting studios of several leading sculptors, both in Britain and abroad, to expose himself to their techniques and to further educate himself independently.
In 1889 Mackennal gained his first major commission after winning a competition to decorate the Government House of Victoria in his native Australia. He returned to his home country and spent two years working on the project. Upon his return to Europe, Mackennal began exhibiting at the Paris Salon and at the Royal Academy. In 1893 his Circe created controversy in London for its sensual subject matter. In 1910, Mackennal was awarded the commissions to design the coronation coin of George V and the tomb of King Edward VII, two projects which accelerated his career. He received commissions for various statues of Edward VII to be displayed across the British Empire, as well as other memorials for military academies and government buildings.
Mackennal was a major contributor to the development of the British New Sculpture movement, which favoured the concepts of reinterpreting classical subject matters through new elegant forms and symbolism. As the 2007 Bertram Mackennal exhibition at the Gallery of New South Wales showed, Bertram Mackennal must be considered the most successful Australian artist of the early twentieth century. In 1909 he was elected as the first Australian to a membership of the Royal Academy and the first Australian artist to be knighted. He received the Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1921, as well as elected R.A. in 1922. He continued working on small- and large-scale commissions until his death in 1931.
In the present work we are presented with the personification of Truth as a winged female figure. Her wings consist of large, lavish feathers that spread out as her hair is swept behind her by an unseen wind. She holds in her hands a mirror in front of her chest and gazes toward the viewer. With her pose and demeanour, she gracefully yet unwaveringly invites us to reflect upon ourselves.
The statue’s base exhibits intricate, Art-Nouveau inspired detailing. The title of Truth is inscribed under a pedestal where an angel, in a kneeling position, cowers and hides as if trying to avoid Truth’s gaze. Two more angel heads are seen at the rear of the base and on the sides two full-face profiles of beautiful young women, whose trance like demeanour contribute to the metaphysical atmosphere of the subject matter.
Detail of Base.
Detail of Base.
Conceived in 1894 Truth represents the epitome of Mackennal's first success in the 1890s that made him one of the most renowned sculptors of his generation. With his approach to the female subject matter Mackennal helped to establish the vogue for the femme fatale in British sculpture, setting the parameters for later explorations of the female nude:
‘Like Circe, her gesture extends to the imagined viewer. Truth holds up a burnished disc which reflects a reality incapable of compromise [...] Mackennal thematises "truth" as a psychological act, the figure's nakedness a metaphor for "unclothed" truth, the tautness of her body carrying resonances of Circe's force and sternness, her face "frank, fearless and earnest", and her wings indicative of a being with the moral authority of a higher realm.’ (Edwards 2007, p. 36)
Female figures holding the attribute of a mirror have long been associated with the figure of Truth as symbols of wisdom and self-knowledge since Ancient Greece. Simultaneously, the mirror can imply the concept of vanity and the false reality an individual can create for themselves. As such, the depth of symbolism associated with a mirror has been a prominent subject matter amongst artists, both in painting and sculpture for centuries.
Titian, Woman with a Mirror, oil on canvas, ca. 1515, The Louvre, Paris.
Jules Joseph Lefebvre, La Vérité, oil on canvas, 1870, Musée d’Orsay.
The success of Mackennal’s allegorical figures in the 1890s was the result of his masterful ability to synthesise the major artistic tendencies of both English and French sculpture. In this perspective, Mackennal was able to express the multiple metaphors of Symbolism of the British New Sculpture, the sensuality of the French nude mediated by the curved lines of Art Nouveau and a dynamic naturalism then characterised as 'Neo-Florentine'. As Marion H. Spielmann rightfully concluded 'he picked up a good deal of foreign feeling.' (Spielmann 1901, p. 132)
Works of Betram Mackennal are currently exhibited in multiple international museums, such as the TATE Britain, the Royal Academy, the Royal Collection at Windsor, as well as the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria.
Commonwealth Institute, Stories of Australian Art (London: 1998), p.77.
Deborah Edwards, Australian Sculpture 1890-1919 (Sydney: 1987)
Deborah Edwards, Bertram Mackennal: the Fifth Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Project (Sydney: 2007), illust. p. 37.
Marion H. Spielmann, British Sculpture and Sculptors of Today (London: 1901), pp.132-137.
Susan Beattie, The New Sculpture (Yale University Press: 1983) pp. 245-7.
Queensland Art Gallery, Brought to Light: Australian Art, 1850- 1965 (Brisbane: 1998), p.62.
Victor Arwas, Art Noveau: From Mackintosh to Liberty – The Birth of a Style (Michigan: 2000), p. 182.