Lynn Chadwick (British, 1914-2003)

Lynn Chadwick came to prominence in the late 1940’s creating mobile sculptures that were first shown at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London in 1949. His reputation soon grew, with a solo exhibition at Gimpel’s in 1950, and a major commission for the 1951 Festival of Britain Southbank site, titled Cypress, and a further commission for the Riverside Restaurant Tower the same year. His involvement in the seminal Festival of Britain, represented a significant juncture, leading to recognition as a member of a burgeoning group of young sculptors in the UK. This standing was further magnified by Chadwick’s inclusion at the Second Open-Air Sculpture Exhibition in Battersea park, exhibiting the insect like mobile: Green Finger, and a commission by the Arts Council for the mobile Fisheater. His sculptures for the Battersea Sculpture Exhibition, and the Festival of Britain (which drew over 8 million visitors) provided crucial public coverage at the start of Chadwick’s working life.

Lynn Chadwick, The Fisheater, 1951, iron and copper. Tate Collection. Image courtesy of Tate Britain

1952-53 saw a period that cemented Chadwick at the forefront of British sculpture, but also on the international art scene. These developments came hand-in-hand with the production of his first solid pieces. In 1952 he had his second solo exhibition at Gimpel’s, and was also shown on the continent at Galerie de France, Paris. The key exhibition for Chadwick, and arguably a pivotal moment in the development of British sculpture in the 20th century, was his participation in the British Council’s New Aspects of British Sculpture, shown at the Venice Biennale in 1952, alongside Henry Moore, Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Red Butler, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi, and William Turnbull. It was this display that lead to an entire movement, known as the Geometry of Fear.

The advance of his work, depicting firstly anthropomorphic birds and beasts, and later that decade the initiation of the human form, with tiny heads and precariously thin legs and arms, can be seen as existentialist in philosophy; a skeptical reaction to WW2, and the horror of nuclear war. These dark apparitions of the world; singular lonely figures, pairs confronting the other, or joined, grasping at one another in often threatening poses, create a stark and often threatening imagery.

However, Chadwick’s approach can also seem to imbue a sense of positivity. Opposed to his colleagues from the prior generation of carvers – Moore and Hepworth and their followers (who essentially reduced from the initial material) Chadwick and his contemporaries built up an initial skeleton, they constructed. This method perhaps fits in with a post-war optimism to try new materials, and develop a more meaningful sculptural language. The use of technological developments, especially welding, which Chadwick learnt at the British Oxygen company with his contemporaries Reg Butler and Geoffrey Clarke, is central to many of the Geometry of Fear artist’s methods. Welding opened up the opportunity to make delicate sculptures, but also ones that retain a core strength. For Chadwick this started with his mobiles, which could now grow onto a larger scale, but also his full figures with their stick thin legs, supporting huge bodily masses.

Further success came in1953, when Chadwick was one of the twelve semi-finalists for a major international prize organised by the ICA, for a public sculpture titled The Unknown Political Prisoner. Four years after his debut at the Venice Biennale, Chadwick was then chosen to solely represent Britain at the 1956 Biennale. It was here that he won the international prize for Sculpture, beating both Giacometti and Richier. This honor confirmed Chadwick as one of the giants of twentieth century sculpture, a testimony cemented when he was awarded the CBE the following decade, in 1964

Like many earlier sculptors in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the challenge of abstraction and especially the later minimal constructions of Caro and his followers, meant a necessity for Chadwick to develop and change his style and approach. To match the age of mass communication of the 60’s Chadwick established a language that left behind his insect-like, sharp and aggressive physical appearance, and morphed onto something more full, and perhaps human.

Lynn Chadwick, Pair of Cloaked Figures III, 1977, bronze. Sold by Bowman Sculpture

The development of his triangular and square ‘TV Heads’, synthesizing monitor or computer screen heads with naturalistic, sometimes cloaked bodies – ‘suggest that humankind is caught between a nature and technological culture’. Opposed to his earlier anthropomorphic beings, often beastly or hostile, these sculpture become more human in form, perhaps more emotional (the couples are enhanced in sentiment when the triangular shape is translated to female, and the square shape into male) but perhaps they also seem robotic with their faceless glare? An instance of Chadwick looking to the future, and questioning the outcome?

Chadwick was honored globally over the next decades, with major exhibitions in Japan, Europe and South America especially. He was created commander, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France, in 1993. Crucially in 1998, in recognition of his huge achievements, he was invited by the director of the Venice Biennale to contribute the mammoth bronze: Back to Venice, as part of a major international sculpture survey. In 2001 he was elected a Senior Royal Academician (Royal Academy, London) and the year of his death in 2003, he was honored with a retrospective at the Tate Britain.

Lynn Chadwick, Back to Venice, 1988, bronze.

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