The Age of Anxiety and Elisabeth Frink

Until last year the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) had just one small sculpture by Elisabeth Frink in the collection. Now, thanks to the generosity of her son Lin Jammet and his estate, NGS boasts a stunning collection of her work: twelve bronze sculptures and many drawings and prints ranging from the 1950s to the 1990s. A big room in New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville has been given over to these haunting works. In this blog, Patrick Elliott, Chief Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, explores the themes of inhumanity, torment and fear present in Frink's work.

Elisabeth Frink Soldier’s Head IV 1965 © The Executors of the Frink Estate and Archive. All Rights Reserved, DACS, London 2021

Elisabeth Frink (1930 - 1993) was one of the towering figures of post-war British art. Alongside Eduardo Paolozzi and Lynn Chadwick, she was part of that generation of figurative sculptors who moved away from Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Instead of carving gentle mother-and-child subjects, as Moore and Hepworth had often done, they created rough, crusty bronzes which seemed to have survived some nuclear Armageddon. Frink’s work embodied what became known as the Age of Anxiety.

Elisabeth Frink Birdman About 1960 © The Executors of the Frink Estate and Archive. All rights reserved, DACS, London 2022.

She was successful from an early age: the Tate bought one of her sculptures when she was just 22. Almost all her work portrays the male figure: "I don’t find the female form the slightest bit interesting to sculpt", she said. Flight was a major theme. Initially this was expressed in the form of aggressive birds; later she addressed the theme of humankind’s desire to fly and conquer space, ending in crashing failure.

Birdman, a life-size bronze, was her response to the remarkable but doomed exploits of Léo Valentin, a famous French ‘dare-devil’. With wooden wings clamped to his arms, he jumped from a plane at an air show near Liverpool, only to fall to his death. He is a modern-day Icarus, with tiny wings sprouting from his back. The combination of valour and vulnerability, folly and failure are recurring themes in Frink’s work.

Elisabeth Frink Goggled Head II (teeth) 1969 © The Executors of the Frink Estate and Archive. All rights reserved, DACS, London 2022.

Frink’s celebrated heads of men wearing sunglasses or goggles were also a response to war. Massive bronzes, such as Goggled Head II (Teeth), 1969, were inspired by photographs of generals in the Algerian war. As Frink remarked: “They all hid behind dark glasses, and these became a symbol of evil for me. The title Goggle Heads was rather facetious, a way of dealing with the horror of the imagery.” Other heads dealt with the theme of political prisoners and amnesty – she was a steadfast supporter of Amnesty International.

Elisabeth Frink Desert Quartet III 1989 © The Executors of the Frink Estate and Archive. All rights reserved, DACS, London 2022.

She modelled her sculptures in wet plaster over chicken-wire and hessian, then carved and sanded the dry plaster before casting her figures in bronze. In the 1960s it became all the rage to make abstract sculptures in welded metal and plastics, but Frink had no interest in this. In1967 she moved to France, where she remained for some years, and then settled in Dorset in the late 1970s.

The collection includes two enormous heads each over 1.2metres tall from the Desert Quartet series. Made in 1989 and painted white, they look from a distance to be made of plaster or resin, but they are in fact bronzes weighing more than a third of a ton each.

Frink died of cancer in 1993, aged just 62. Tough and politically engaged, and addressing questions of power and masculinity, Frink’s work looks as relevant today as it has ever been.

20 December 2021