An artist of the quickening world

20 May 2017

9:00 AM

20 May 2017

9:00 AM

What is it about Yorkshire, particularly Leeds, that it has bred or trained such a succession of famous modern sculptors? Moore, Hepworth, Armitage and, although it stretches the point, Hirst. All attended Leeds art schools and Armitage was born there on 18 July 1916. Everyone knows Moore, Hepworth, Hirst. But Armitage? How many under 60 remember him? Conventional opinion confines his relevance to the 1950s.

The Kenneth Armitage Foundation (of which I was a trustee) has marked his centenary with an overdue restoration. There have been two books — Kenneth Armitage Sculptor, edited by Ann Elliott, and The Sculpture of Kenneth Armitage by James Scott — and three exhibitions. The first was at the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath; now comes the climax with the two Leeds exhibitions, plus three large sculptures temporarily displayed in the city along with Millennium Square’s ‘Both Arms’ (2000), unveiled in Armitage’s presence by Nelson Mandela. A plaque in his honour will be unveiled in the Square to coincide with the Tetley exhibition. Leeds has done him proud.

Quite right, too. If Moore blazed the trail by becoming the first British sculptor to earn an international reputation, Armitage was in the forefront of those who followed. At the exhibition that made his name, when he was one of several young British sculptors representing Britain at the 1952 Venice Biennale, a piece by Moore stood at the entrance as a quality guarantee. Moore’s international status as England’s supreme modern artist had been established with a 1946 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the sculptor’s prize at the 1948 Biennale.

At the time, Armitage had not had a one-man show. In Venice he sold virtually every piece. Peggy Guggenheim, leading collector, was first; Elsa Schiaparelli, leading couturière, second; and he sold two pieces, including his signature sculpture, ‘People in the Wind’ (1950), to the Museum of Modern Art. His closest friend among the Biennale exhibitors was the equally charismatic Lynn Chadwick. Fashionable recognition seems to come in pairs: Moore/Hepworth, Caro/King, Hirst/Emin. In the 1950s it was Armitage/Chadwick. Following Venice, Armitage exhibited elsewhere in Europe, in New York and in South America and his art entered many public collections. In 1958 he won the Biennale prize for a sculptor under 45 and in 1959 joined glamorous Marlborough Fine Art.

His trademark — abstracted human figures where mass was indicated by shape rather than volume — derived from the war, when he taught aircraft and tank identification from silhouettes. The training never left him. He abandoned carving for modelling — casting the plaster model in unbreakable and easily transportable bronze when affordable. Armitage’s expansion complemented Giacometti’s reduction. ‘People in the Wind’ recalled a group united by flapping clothes. Moore is characterised by the reclining figure, Armitage by movement. As Joanne Crawford writes in her introduction to the 1950s show, his art captured the ‘quickening world’.

The 1960s brought eclipse. Bronze, unfashionable between the wars, became unfashionable again. In England Caro preferred painted steel, Phillip King coloured plastic. Globalisation rapidly dissolved the romantic notion of an avant-garde. Armitage left Marlborough, fell out with Chadwick and fended for himself. He experimented with new techniques and materials, nursed international contacts and spent two years in Berlin.

In Leeds the exhibits span half a century, showing that his work evolved in subject and scale, without any loss of invention or his characteristic zest for life. The two exhibitions also demonstrate that, like Moore, and indeed Rodin, founder of modern sculpture, drawing was of equal importance for him. This is especially true of his show at the Tetley, inspired by Richmond Park’s ancient oak trees, which absorbed him for a decade from the mid-1970s. A modified version of the Tetley show, Kenneth Armitage: The Oak Tree Sculptures, can be seen in the foyer of Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Square (7 August–9 September).

Late in life a visit to Abu Simbel’s colossi in Egypt goaded him to realise several monumental pieces working with the sculptor Dick Budden and Rungwe Kingdon’s Pangolin foundry, where Hirst has sculptures cast. ‘Legs Walking’ (2001) in Leeds City Square and ‘Reach for the Stars’ (2001) elsewhere attest to his enduring love of movement. At Sotheby’s Bowie sale, the Armitages went for well above estimate. The coincidental centennial celebration shows that this was no Bowie effect but rightful recognition of a neglected master.

Jessie Flood-Paddock’s inclusion celebrates Armitage’s other legacy, his Foundation. Its chief gift is a sculptor fellowship that funds a biennial residence in his remarkable James MacLaren-designed Arts and Crafts studio in Olympia. Flood-Paddock was the 2013–15 fellow.

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