Elisabeth Frink was a schoolgirl during the Second World War when she was evacuated out of London to the Devon countryside. Food was scarce and so she would venture into the fields to shoot hares and birds for the pot. Sometimes, she says, she forgot to hang up their bodies properly when she got back home and they would twist into weird shapes. She is recounting this in footage from the 1960s that is included in Humans and Other Animals, a full-scale retrospective of her work at the UEA’s Sainsbury Centre. She talks familiarly, but respectfully about Death, as though he is a distant chief executive and she down in the typing pool. She had joined the firm as a teenager and it would be a job for life.
Surely the point of sculpting humans, and other animals, is to take some inert, inorganic material and put a magical spark of life into it. Yet Frink often reneges on this core duty and in her most arresting works she blazes in defiance of it. There is power and fierceness and an ardent primitivism in her sculptures, but also something very dire that usually gets the upper hand. Many of her figures are haunted by the stillness and stiffness of corpses. Her birds look like they would fall like bricks through water in flight. Her “birdmen” are basically men and very obviously flightless.
Her humans would likely expire from exhaustion if they ever tried to take a walk around the gallery. Often, their eyes are closed or covered. Sometimes, their bodies are so bare as to look peculiarly flat. Typically, their skin resembles moss or ivy or a mouldering, over-textured mass. In her “Green Man,” a late work from the 1990s, she has finally located a mythical human with foliage sprouting from his lips.
She occasionally rebels against her own disobedience. A bust of her son has a clear spell of life cast over it. A bronze cat looks unusually animated, albeit with the lustre of some zombified roadkill that has wobbled up onto its feet again. It is still taut and sinuous – a hellcat, in other words. It faintly recalls those callow creatures from Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944). This far into the exhibition, it might strike you as a small miracle that Frink can sculpt a cat, but of course, she could never tease the bronze into fluff. Her birds are always a cold dish of beaks, claws, and quills.
Frink undertakes the opposite of anthropomorphism. Her cat is the stark reality of what a cat is, stripped of all the normal sentimental enhancements. The rewilding of a cat. Her humans retain some merciful softness. Admittedly, her human heads and figures look more natural when they are grouped into herds. In one room, four synonymous men, the Riace Warriors, pause together like antelope at the sound of a gunshot. But her men can look out at you with understanding in their eyes – something noble and tragic that is possibly more than puppy appeal. Her Judas necessarily wears sunglasses. The humanity of her Assassins has melted away with their disintegrating flesh behind a visor.
The humans are separated from the other animals in this exhibition but one wonders how it would work if they were mixed up. How would it look if all of Frink’s sculptures were gathered together, in a single space and not clunkily subdivided by theme? I doubt that the effect would be overwhelming and such a dense jungle of sculpture might be counterintuitively simpler and starker.
As this exhibition stands, gallerygoers will be grateful to have so many of Frink’s sculptures to explore. These works were commonly public commissions and one imagines that many arms have been twisted, and many favours called in, to get them all here. Yet the curators had evidently wanted visitors to get a lot for their £13, and they had also wanted to charge £13, and so Humans and Other Animals is filled out with sculptures from only superficially relevant contemporaries such as Louise Bourgeois and Rebecca Warren. The latter’s contribution egregiously features a pompom. Too much fake fur and excess flab is being presented here – material that should be scraped away to get back to the real raw sinew.
Equally, Frink’s drawings are very minor in comparison to her sculptures. I struggled to see where they fitted into the story. They look like preliminaries, but in the 1960s footage, Frink implies that she sculpts instinctively and that the plaster takes form in her drifting hands. This renders her drawings rather inexplicable. They have little standalone power and, when compared to the sculptures, they seem somehow less than two dimensional.
It’s raining men but there’s not much to cry “hallelujah!” about. The birdman is the chief motif in Frink’s work: either the birdmen who were shot down during the Battle of Britain or, more particularly, Léo Valentin, a birdman with wooden wings who had died in front of 100,000 spectators at an air show in 1956. In these sculptures, the birdman is tragic, dignified and spinning, whilst in all of its magnetism and inevitability the ground represents death. The birdman is nonetheless a democratic totem; he is not meant to evoke the outsider status of Jesus Christ, or even amount to much of a martyr. We are all like these birdmen and all spinning towards the same ultimate crunch.
Humans and Other Animals continues until 24 February.