Friday, January 8, 2010

Things to do in the snow: a lesson from the late Lynn Chadwick

They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going. During the harsh winter of 1962-63, there was none tougher than British sculptor Lynn Chadwick.

That winter, temperatures in the UK dropped to their lowest since 1740. On 29 and 30 December 1962, a blizzard across south-west England and Wales brought snowdrifts six metres deep, blocking roads and rail routes, bringing down telephone and power lines and leaving villages cut off.

Chadwick and his family had moved in 1958 into Lypiatt Park, a large neo-Gothic house in the countryside outside Stroud, Gloucestershire. By 1963 they were accustomed to the rigours and relative solitude of rural life, but the winter of ’62-63 proved a particularly challenging time. Because transport routes were blocked, supplies were hard to get, so Chadwick looked to what raw materials lay at hand. He had for some time been dismantling redundant agricultural machinery for its component parts which he stored in an outbuilding at Lypiatt Park.

Chadwick had spent the previous summer of 1962 in Cornigliano in Italy, working alongside the American sculptors Alexander Calder and David Smith to produce works for an open-air sculpture festival in Spoleto. Inspired by that experience, on his return to Britain Chadwick began to use the archive of discarded objects he’d found at Lypiatt Park to make sculpture. The fact that he was snowed in seems to have concentrated his mind in a new direction.

David Smith’s daughter Candida later reported how her father’s Italian adventure had been followed by a fertile period of activity, as if “the creative explosion and the resulting enormous installation in Spoleto ignited a fire that did not burn out.” Chadwick clearly experienced a similar creative outpouring during the harsh winter that followed his return from Italy.

Inevitably, the nature of the found materials he was using informed the abstract tenor of the works that began to emerge from his studio, but the contact with Smith must also have played a part. The result was a significant body of wintry looking abstract works of great formal elegance.

Although relatively little attention has been paid to them until now, the objects Chadwick created from found materials during that harsh winter places him alongside the great twentieth-century blacksmith sculptors Julio Gonzalez and David Smith.

The Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942), who taught Picasso to weld, once summarized the challenges facing the artist who aspires to ‘draw in space’:

“The important problem to solve here is not only to wish to make a work which is harmonious and perfectly balanced – No! – but to get this result by the marriage of material and space. By the union of real forms with imaginary forms, obtained and suggested by imaginary points, or by perforation – and, according to the natural law of love, to mingle them and make them inseparable, one from another, as are the body and the spirit.”

Chadwick’s preferred way of working was broadly in harmony with the philosophy outlined by Gonzalez. He rarely began a sculpture with a pre-planned idea of the direction it would take, but instead allowed his technique to guide his creative instincts. Working with found objects required him to collaborate with pre-existing forms which, to use Gonzalez’s words, he mingled and made inseparable.

The titles Chadwick chose for some of the works of this period – Insiders, Indicators, Transmuters and Starters, for example – may seem randomly applied. But the formal themes that distinguish the Insiders from the Indicators, the Starters from the Transmuters, were clearly of personal significance for Chadwick. The Insiders (Insider III shown right) may have been named in playful homage to his Cornigliano hosts – the Italian 'Italsider' steel company who had granted him the use of their abandoned steel factories during the summer of '62.

In each of the unique works Chadwick produced during that winter we see him drawing on his own experience and resources, tapping into his innate feeling for totemic form. This is particularly noticeable in the ‘Starter’ series (Starter I shown left) in which he cannibalizes machine components, fusing together drums, camshafts, cogs and wheels to maximize the visual interplay between the engineered indentations, perforations, threaded and milled surfaces of circles, squares, shafts and drums. The results are twentieth-century industrial equivalents of the ethnographic idols that inspired Picasso and his modernist contemporaries half a century before.

Rarely if ever has a severe winter been so bountiful for British sculpture.

Top left: Lynn Chadwick, Insider IV, 1963
Second (right): Lynn Chadwick, Square, 1963
Third (left): Lynn Chadwick, Indicator II, 1963
Fourth (right): Lynn Chadwick, Insider III, 1963
Bottom (left): Lynn Chadwick, Starter I, 1963