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Art review: Elisabeth Frink: A View from Within at Dorset Museum and Art Gallery

01 March 2024

Susan Gray sees the Dorchester exhibition about Elisabeth Frink

D-FRK/1/10/7/2/6 © Anthony Marshall/Courtesy of Dorset History Centre. Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet

Elisabeth Frink working on the Dorset Martyr group in 1985. More photos in the gallery

Elisabeth Frink working on the Dorset Martyr group in 1985. More photos in the gallery

WITH his impenetrable mirror sunglasses, Goggle Head (1969) makes a good metaphor for contemporary responses to Elisabeth Frink’s . The oversized bronze head, inspired by a photograph of the powerful and feared Moroccan military leader Mohamed Oufkir, embodies the artist’s fascination with what was going on behind the glasses, the compulsion to figure out the unreadable. Likely emotions of brutality and aggression are screened behind the shades.

The ubiquity of Frink’s work, which graces sites ranging from Bond Street and the Royal Festival Hall to Dorchester Hospital and Liverpool Cathedral, creates a similarly opaque lens for appraising her sculptures, as her popularity and prolific output obscure the radical quality of her art.

As one of the key beneficiaries of the Frink Estate and Archive, transferred in 2020, some 27 years after the artist’s death, Dorset Museum acquired 400 items, including bronzes, prints, fragile working models, and studio tools. “A View from Within” celebrates the last two decades of Frink’s life, spent at Woolland House, near Blackmore Vale, when she was happily married to her third husband, Alex Czaky.

Frink’s studio was designed by Czaky’s son John, and the garden provided a gallery for her large sculptures, which were repositioned by tractor until they found the right spot. Placing the production of her art in its enviably lively social context, illustrated diaries recall a visit to Jean Muir at Lorbottle Hall, the fashion designer’s home in Northumberland, and photos of Frink modelling pleated Issey Miyake dresses. During her time in Dorset, she completed some of her most important work, including the Dorset Martyrs’ Memorial (1983) sculpture for Dorchester, and her final sculpture, Risen Christ (1993).

The exhibition opens with a huge photo of Frink sitting on Warhorse (1991) while plastering its mane, and all the works are immersed in this era’s happy domestic and social milieu. In one corner, a recreation of her studio shows shelves of knives and mallets and tiny plaster cows. Frink worked with Radio 3 playing and kept a list of favourite music above the sink. Her son Lin Jammet recalled: “composers’ names and symphonies are scribbled on the walls; the old dusty radio is caked with set plaster, the dial poised at the classical station and ready to be switched on at 6.30am.”

Lis and Alex, as they were known to friends, hosted concerts by the Takács Quartet to raise money for victims of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, and also for the Summer Music Society of Dorset. The gallery’s soundtrack reflects her choices: an Adagio by Schubert and Grieg’s “The Last Spring”, a choice of Frink on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, play as visitors view the work.

During the 1980s, Frink made two iconic sculptures for public places: Walking Madonna (1981) for Salisbury Cathedral and Dorset Martyrs (1983) for the Dorchester memorial. Her Madonna can be read as an isolated figure, a mother consumed with grief, summoning the strength to move forward, but also an everywoman who endures and overcomes.

The Madonna is Frink’s only female sculpture, as she found the male form more interesting. Seated Man II (1986), which was positioned by Woolland’s swimming pool, and presents in monumental bronze the heft of muscle and flow of facial features composed in contemplation, exemplifies Frink’s delight in the male form, and genius at relaying its presence.

The martyrs in the Dorset Martyrs, symbolising all those persecuted for their beliefs, stand resolute before an executioner who strides towards them, their steady gazes and upright composure capturing a quiet dignity. In the gallery’s maquette the condemned pair meet the viewer’s gaze, while the larger, side-profile executioner is impenetrable, as he heads towards them. But, in the sculpture on Gallows Hill, the martyrs, now green, stand further apart and with differentiated poses, as the executioner, still in all-encasing robe, faces them directly. Frink rearranged the composition to suit the street scene better. Between 1587 and 1643, seven Roman Catholic martyrs were executed on the site where the sculpture stands.

Throughout her career, Frink had been awarded a steady stream of commissions for religious spaces. She saw herself as essentially Christian, despite having rejected her RC upbringing, and enjoyed the challenge of reinterpreting spiritual imagery. In the late 1980s, she made two Easter Heads textured with marks and patinated in earth tones of either umber or ochre. They are expressions of regeneration.

In 1991, Frink was diagnosed with cancer. She was working on War Horse at the time and said: “I think being ill and having to get over a major operation was the most shattering thing for me because I’ve always been extraordinarily fit.” Her thought was “to do a strong chunky animal, just standing there, almost as if it was wounded, but not plunging round in a hysterical way”. The prospect of returning home to work on the horse carried her through the surgery and treatment.

Despite her illness, she started on Risen Christ for Liverpool Cathedral. For the first time, Frink had the help of an assistant, to work on a 13ft plaster sculpture that towered into the roof space of the studio. She created a figure with a lightly textured surface, wide eyes looking straight ahead, and hands that are open and inviting. Risen Christ was important to Frink emotionally and sculpturally, and she chose the ascension as a subject, because although terminally ill, she believed something of the spirit lived on.

Risen Christ was unveiled at Liverpool Cathedral a few days before Frink died. She said of the work: “For me this this resurrected Christ definitely has a personal meaning, similar to that of the Green Man heads. They all symbolise a rebirth.”

Elisabeth Frink: A View from Within” is at Dorset Museum and Art Gallery, High West Street, Dorchester, until 21 April. Phone 01305 262735.


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