Between The Earth And The Sky


In our hallway we have a lithograph of an eagle owl by Elisabeth Frink, an artist I admire for her ability to capture the wildness of the creatures she represents. The image has an urgency in the way the brush and sponge marks are made, as if she knew the opportunity to capture the moment was fleeting and she had to work fast. Hers are not cute, cuddly animals - they are forces of nature. 

I was reminded of this quality at the recent exhibition of her work at Hauser & Wirth Somerset where drawings were hung alongside bronzes from throughout her career. The most interesting sculptures are awkward and lumpen, Frankenstein beasts only part-formed, as if the clay itself has came alive as she was making them.  I am intrigued by this sense of life and earth being intensely bound together.  It gives expression to deep-seated feelings people have about belonging to a place and the cycle of birth, life and eventually returning to the earth..


Frink was not alone in these pre-occupations.  Driven by their experiences in the Second World War, a number of artists were making work with references to pre-modern culture and a strong connection to the earth or the landscape.  Two pieces I particularly like are by Reg Butler and they are both towers. Butler studied architecture at the Architectural Association in the late 1930s, then trained as a blacksmith and then worked for Henry Moore for a year.  Immediately below is one of his working models for a monument to 'The Unknown Political Prisoner', 1955-6 which there were plans to erect in Berlin and would have stood over 100m tall. Below that is 'Study for a Great Tower', 1963, about which I know little. Butler eventually became disillusioned with what he called the 'Neo-Primitive' of sculptors like Frink and Moore, accusing them of 'living in emotions of long-dead cultures making cult objects for non-existent societies, nostalgically ignoring their own world'. 

Both towers physically connect to the ground in a deliberate way, with the poise of refined objects that have been carefully balanced to achieve a visual equilibrium, but they do so very differently.  The Unknown Political Prisoner Monument defines space in the loosest sense, as an open structure of thin steel wires through which the landscape and sky are framed, delicately pinned to the ground.  The Great Tower is a completely opaque object, its form occupying space in a domineering and exclusive way.  Its irregular, key-like platforms seem to lock it to the air around it so that it physically engages with the sky, and its tapered shaft suggests a spike or nail driven into the ground.


Above is a sketch of Stonehenge from 1827 by JMW Turner. The stones appear like part of the ground that has been thrust up, like an eroded landform.  The sky and surrounding landscape would have been visible in the gaps between the stones, the lintels framing views and enhancing the sense of enclosure, an effect that would have been much more powerful in its complete state. The man-made structure makes a connection between the earth and the sky.

The etching below is by one of my favourite artists Eduardo Chillida. Most of Chillida's 2-dimensional works look like plans, but this one feels like a section. It is called Bridge (Zubi in Basque) and shows a form that is both rooted in the solid masses on either side and bound with the space between. The bridge could have been a simpler, more rational affair but the three holes and its cranked edges make it engage with the space it crosses..


This sort of visual and physical connection with a specific place is something I would like to achieve in our architectural work.  Of course these connections are fundamental in nature, and perhaps the attraction of forms that are bound to their surroundings is that they provide security and comfort to the inherently mobile human.  There is something psychologically satisfying and life enhancing when we are aware of the huge mass of the earth beneath us and the expanse of thick sky above.


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