Frink’s work: an unflinching expression of the human condition

By Jo Baring, Director of The Ingram Collection

Dame Elisabeth Frink is one of Britain’s best known artists of the twentieth century, producing over 400 sculptures during the course of her career.

Frink grew up in Suffolk during the Second World War, and famously witnessed bombers fighting in the skies above her, or returning to the base in flames. These images stayed with her, and in her work she explored the close and complex connection between heroism and failure.

One of her central pre-occupations was an investigation into what it means to be human. She asked herself fundamental questions concerning human behaviour.  She said that her concern was “not that mankind is any worse that it was; it is just that it is as bad as it was”.

Frink was drawn to the idea of the male as a flawed and vulnerable hero and, when depicting the human figure, she nearly always chose the male. Her work explored human strength, struggle, aggression, fragility and vulnerability.  She saw her work as an unflinching expression of the human condition. Her art was ambitious – it was not simply to look ‘nice or pretty’.

“Nearly all people have a private world. I escape into my studio and put my fantasies into solid form, into sculptural form. I have an ambition to be a good sculptor. I think one has to be ambitious. I want to be able to give the idea, the crystallisation, the satisfactory sculptural form without it being mere forms which look nice. I want it to have an impact on people who look at it without it being dramatic or melodramatic.”

Elisabeth Frink, Riace III sculpture
Elisabeth Frink, ‘Riace III’, 1986 in Abbot Hall Art Gallery. Courtesy of The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art.

One of the most powerful examples of this ambition is Riace III, lent by the Ingram Collection to Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power. Frink was fascinated by the discovery of some fifth-century BC Greek bronze sculptures in the sea off Calabria in Southern Italy in the 1970s and she later saw them on display in Florence. She wanted to make new versions of these sinister warriors, finding their ‘thuggishness’ inspiring: “Thuggishness is a bit of a pre-occupation with me. It all hinges on my humanitarian sentiments…making new versions seemed like a marvellous idea, one that I really wanted to tackle.”

Her modern versions of the Riace Warriors are potent & alert vessels of muscle and sinew. There is also a fundamental ambivalence to the figures – they are clearly about to bust into movement, but which direction? They are also neither obvious forces of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ – rather they are humans, with all the associated complexity of character and motive.

Because Frink worked resolutely in the figurative tradition and stuck to the qualities of bronze when other contemporary sculptors were investigating new materials, such as painted steel and aluminium, she has certainly been critically overlooked in the past.

But there has recently been a long-overdue reappraisal of her work, culminating in a number of recent exhibitions. Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall is an important and timely exploration of a celebrated creative output.

See Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal until 29 September 2018. More information at www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink 

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