ARTS: EXHIBITIONS: Everybody needs somebody

A thoughtful new show at London's Waddington Galleries proves that modern sculptors are still devoted to the human figure
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN THE mid-1980s Barry Flanagan had a bit of a craze for the body- builder Lisa Lyon. I remember how he coerced friends into attending a viewing of a Warholesque film in which she struck attitudes. This was in the Groucho Club. Lisa herself attended, wearing a pink hat. The whole business seemed pointless and was certainly boring but in the new exhibition at the Waddington Galleries, "Of the Human Form'', I see what Flanagan was up to. Here's one of a series of little bronzes of Lisa, in a body- building or rather body- showing-off pose. It's terribly funny, and also makes one or two subversive points about the history of sculpture.

For the original body-builders, at the end of the 19th century, derived their poses from classical statuary. In particular they imitated Michelangelo. Flanagan is aware of the tradition but hams it up in a characteristically odd manner: first of all by gender reversal and then by hints that he has been looking both at Matisse sculptures and film-land monsters. What a continually surprising artist he is! Lisa Lyon belongs to 1985. The show also has his Gallifa Study XI of 1992. If you didn't know that it came from the hand of Prestatyn-born, Birmingham-educated Flanagan you'd be convinced it was by a Spanish artist. Perhaps that's because Flanagan now lives in Ibiza, and for decades has had a love of Miro's art.

There's a Miro of 1971 in this diverting and thought-provoking exhibition, plus a recent Tapies, a Gonzalez of 1942 and three sculptures from Picasso's fecund post-war period. So the Spaniards have been given their say. But in what conversation? Leslie Waddington does not explain what he had in mind when devising "Of the Human Form". But one purpose of the show is clear. It suggests that modern 3-D art almost inevitably returns to the figure. Whatever has been achieved by abstraction, the living body remains the basic sculptural concern. The logic of this argument is that the most seemingly abstract works on display, two pieces by William Turnbull, are really human forms in abstract disguise.

This observation is often made of Willem de Kooning's paintings. All of de Kooning's sculptures are overtly figurative in a way that his paintings are not. Waddington shows one of the very first of them, the Cross-Legged Figure of 1972. Its creator was already an old man - in his late sixties - when, almost by chance, he took up 3-D work. In Rome in 1969 he had fashioned some little figurines. Then Henry Moore suggested that they could be enlarged. Obviously he didn't tell de Kooning how to make a sculpture stand on its own feet. This grotesque piece has to be stuck on a supporting rod. It is not thereby a failure as sculpture. But Cross-Legged Figure feels too detached from the facts of physical sensation. That was also a problem with Henry Moore. His Mother and Child of 1932 and Maquette for Figure on Steps of 1956 are pretty good, within Moore's own terms. None the less one feels that his art might have been invigorated if he had ever sculpted from a real model. Moore died in 1986, so there was just enough time for Flanagan to have sent Lisa Lyon up to the pastures of Much Hadham.

People who applaud de Kooning's sculptures make parallels with Rodin and Giacometti. They are mistaken. His sculptural approach came from his own way with brush on canvas, which always skirted around a notional figure rather than defining that figure's form. Obviously you can't do this in sculpture, so de Kooning instinctively depressed parts of the body that normally would have bulk, tension and proportion. His thumb went into his clay when he should have built it up. Limbs look inside-out. The results are like a caricature of figural sculpture (and de Kooning never convincingly sculpted a woman). Lisa might be cross, and surely would prefer Rodin's athletic Iris, Messenger of the Gods which is generally inspired by some Greek pediment but could not have been made without a close sight of some Parisian lady friend.

Matisse's first achievement as a sculptor was to rid himself of the overbearing influence of Rodin. His head of Jeanette, made in 1910, is a more dignified approach to the female personality than anything Rodin could produce. Not that Matisse had much personal interest in his model (a young woman called Jeanne Vaderin). He was fascinated by her physiognomy - the prominent nose, brooding eyes and thick hair - but much more by the aesthetic sensation of sculpting her head as though he were painting it. This is the first (and in stylistic terms the most conservative) of his five heads of Jeanne. Yet its modelling is marvellous, and exactly corresponds with the way that Matisse put brush to canvas at that period.

The other great painter / sculptor of our ageing century, Picasso, is represented by relatively light-hearted pieces, though the tiny Femme Debout and totemic Jeune Homme become more disturbing the longer one looks at them. A book could be written on Picasso as a miniaturist. He loved extremely small works and often packed his best secrets into them. Human small works of this period were his children Claude and Paloma, for whom he made many sculptural toys. The children are portrayed in a 1954 canvas that Waddington has hung in this sculpture show, the Enfants Dessinant. I reproduce the 1962 Tete d'Homme a Moustaches. Sculptures of this sort were generally cut out of metal by an assistant who worked from Picasso's cardboard maquettes. It is curious that so many of them look ghostly. This moustachioed chap may be jollier through a connection with Picasso's contemporary work in ceramics.

There are in all 25 artists in "Of the Human Form". One Degas is lovely, the other shows signs of effort. Wilhelm Lehmbruck's classical but also Germanic torso is a rare work. The Lipchitz is of the first class. I regret that the sculptures by Nauman, Gormley and Baselitz are not up to the mark. Mimmo Paladino is more intriguing than convincing. I think he doesn't like bodies enough, and his wistful forms could do with a little body-building.

! Waddington Galleries, 11 Cork St, W1 (0171 437 8611), to 22 December.