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Caro gets his heads together for show of figurative genius

Sir Anthony Caro is best-known as the man who took sculpture off the plinth and inspired a generation of abstract sculptors.

But an exhibition of never-before-seen works which go on show today, reveal he is just as happy creating figurative pieces which can be displayed on pedestals.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition consists of four giant heads in bronze and steel, modelled on Caro's wife of 58 years, the painter Sheila Girling.

Widely regarded as Britain's greatest living sculptor, Caro has been a hugely influential figure in the world of abstract sculpture since the early 1960s. His sculptures often make use of pieces of scrap metal, welded together to create shapes that appeal to both the intellect and the senses.

But his early work was figurative and in the late 1980s, having achieved what he set out to do in terms of abstract art, he felt comfortable returning to a more life-like representation.

The four busts of Sheila made in 1988-89 are titled Day, Night, Morning and Evening, reflecting their slightly different moods.

It was not the first time that Caro's wife had been his muse. In the 1950s, he created Woman In Pregnancy, a huge bronze figure with a swollen belly, based on his spouse.

Paul Moorhouse, the 20th century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who curated a major Caro exhibition at Tate Britain in 2005, said: "It's presenting a completely different view of Caro's work.

"In the 1950s, Caro made a name as a figurative sculptor, making extraordinary lumped objects in clay cast in bronze. In the 1960s, he abandoned that and went off in a different direction and reinvented sculpture.

"Caro said to me that in the mid-1980s he felt the battle for abstraction had been won and he could speak in any language he wanted. This extraordinary series of four heads is part of his return to figurative sculpture. They have never been seen before."

Three of the sculptures belong to Caro and one is in private hands. Mr Moorhouse said: "It was very difficult to get all four together, but Caro insisted. They fit together like four movements in a symphony. He thinks in musical terms."

While Caro's abstract sculptures tend to sit on the ground or on small white plinths, the heads, with diameters of half a metre and more, sit on beech-wood pedestals, which Mr Moorhouse said kept them "grounded".

"You really have this powerful sense of weight and groundedness, a sense of a head in repose, a very intense sense of the physical mass of the human body" said Mr Moorhouse.

Anthony Caro Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery, from 21 March-7 September