"FOR ME," Helaine Blumenfeld
says, "sculpture has been a journey to try and reach beyond the
physical, emotional, and cultural boundaries that limit our
per-ception as well as our growth as spiritual beings. Through
sculpture, I have tried to create a visual language that does not
depend on words but on images for its impact."
For 40 years, Blumenfeld has
dedicated herself to following this challenging path in, as she
says, "a world that no longer reveres beauty and spirituality". She
now has more than 65 works in public places and private collections
all over the world. Until September, she has an exhibition at
Salisbury Cathedral of 18 works in marble and bronze, sculpted over
the years, 12 to be seen within the cathedral, and six spaced out
on the surrounding green close.
Even as a child, she had
sensed the limitation of words, and, after initially studying
philosophy in the United States, where she was born, completing her
Ph.D. at Oxford University in 1964, she finally came to the
conclusion, when living in Paris with her new husband, that she
needed to work visually.
She began studying art at
the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where her work was noticed by
Ossip Zadkine, the renowned French sculptor of Russian Jewish
descent, famous for blending cubism with figurative work, and for
his The Destroyed City, inspired by the horror of the
bombed city of Rotterdam. He took her under his wing. "He didn't
teach as such, but, as an apprentice, I was able to watch a great
master at work - his focus, his egocentricity, which he expected of
all his pupils."
Her early exhibitions were
mostly figurative portrayals of couples and family situations,
greatly influenced by Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, and Jacob
Epstein. She worked in bronze, which remains a favourite medium.
"As an artist, I have sought to put into form the complexity,
beauty, and mystery of the human spirit, known to us only in sudden
glimpses. You can meet someone who seems to have an inner light,
and you know they are a spiritual person. Highly polished bronze
gives that light and shadow, complexity, ambiguity, and
One of the first things that
you see in the cathedral nave, its highly polished golden bronze
reflected in the constantly flowing baptismal pool, is
Messenger of the Spirit, the sculpture that gives its name
to the exhibition. It seems like Mercury or maybe an angel in full
flight, going too fast for mortal eyes to see the exact shape.
Angels and the soul
struggling to reach a more spiritual level and break out from its
worldly strictures are themes of many of the works, as is the theme
of needing and creating space. The titles of most of the pieces
leave plenty of room for the imagination: Esprit,
Mysteries, The Space Within, Shadow
Figures, Angels, and Souls.
Blumenfeld observes: "People
say to me 'You're very difficult,' but you have to give something
of yourself, and then you come out with a sense you have discovered
something about yourself. Each piece I create is a message, and
it's the message, not the messenger, which is important. Art is a
rev-elation, both for the artist who receives a vision and for the
viewer to whom it is transmitted."
But she willingly explains
the inspiration behind the work and what she is trying to say, and
is giving talks and workshops throughout the exhibition.
A modest and unassuming
person, Blumenfeld says: "My other medium is marble." When her
children were young, and she needed space and time to focus, she
discovered Pietrasanta, in Tuscany, where Michelangelo lived and
worked. She found that she could go there for short periods and be
Here she tried her hand in
the marble studios of Sem Ghelardini. Here, too, she patiently
learned from an old man who had spent his whole life sculpting the
fine folds of rose petals. She developed this technique, and
symbolically uses fine carved folds and layers over her forms. "The
layers convey what is preventing us from confronting reality. We
grow from inside, but we create this shell around ourselves which
stops us growing. It protects but also inhibits the energy of our
spirit pushing out. The fragmentation in the layers is the inner
self breaking out and growing."
The pure white marble from
quarries between Pietrasanta and Carrara is polished in the open
air with fine sandpaper, and some of the fine carving has a feeling
of beautiful white decorative icing. In the north transept stand
two pieces just touching, with fragile-looking petals like a flower
opening: Taking Risks - a slogan frequently used in the
arts in France, and which Zadkine instilled in his pupils.
Just outside the entrance to
the cathedral, looking very much like a chaotic pile of stones at a
distance, is the most beautiful piece of carved Macedonian marble,
Creation. It is like the beginning of life, as though in a
foetal position, waiting to spring out into the fullness of living.
In its folds are tiny wings waiting to shake out and fly, and in
every crevice delicate detailed carving: a piece many people passed
by, but in which you could see something new every day.
Blumenfeld draws on Greek
philosophy and mythology, and in the cloisters is Psyche,
the beautiful mortal who, through many Herculean tasks, was granted
immortality by the gods. Her polished bronze form is robed with
detailed folds, but her face is unseen. Blumenfeld explains that
Psyche was an earlier version of a marble
Cleopatra who stands tall and magnificent on the west
lawn, also shrouded in folds. She represents every woman, a
sovereign in her own right, but still trying to free her inner
Also in the cloisters is a
touching marble of two slim upright shapes suggesting friends in
harmony together. Blumenfeld calls it Shadow Figures, on
the basis of the Platonic idea that we never really see a person:
we see only the shadow that he or she casts, which changes all the
The Space Within on
the West lawn shows three tall, tree-like shapes in muted-green,
polished bronze, facing towards one other, separated by a space,
and with their backs like hollow trees. This was originally created
in 2008 and en- larged for Salisbury. To accompany it, Blumenfeld
had written: "Space for reflection, space for creativity, space for
growth, space for renewal, space to discover who we are and how we
relate, space for intimacy, space for sharing, space for the spirit
to soar, without it we cannot survive as individuals or as
It is sad when people seem
to think that the sculptures are too difficult to understand, and
walk away. A little girl of five or six had no such inhibitions.
She ran excitedly up to Ascent, a huge, muted-green,
polished bronze, 3.35m high, thinking it was an elephant with
flappy ears. Then she found a hollow at the back and explored in
there. I think Blumenfeld, essen-tially a family woman, would have
been delighted that the piece spoke on many levels.
On many levels, too, is the
humble Bench, a beautiful, simple piece, cut into an
irregular shape of marble and where one can sit and meditate on the
Of Jewish faith, Blumenfeld
feels honoured and privileged to be showing at the cathedral. "To
me," she says, "it is a 'sacred' place of the spirit, accessible to
people of every religion, and to non-believers as well."
Dr Timothy Potts, former
director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge where there are
several of her pieces, observes that she is "a force of nature, an
extraordinary artist, and a great contributor beyond her work
itself. She's been an incredible advocate for public sculpture, for
the arts and what they can do in communities, and the effect they
can have on people."
At Salisbury Cathedral
and Close until 8 September.