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Elisabeth Frink, Riace Warriors (detail), 1986-9 © Tully and Bree Jammet

Elisabeth Frink: Humans and other Animals at the Sainsbury Centre

This autumn, the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts at Norwich will present a major new exhibition of work by Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993). Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals, featuring over 130 works by the artist, will be the largest showing of Frink’s work in 25 years.

The exhibition will provide new perspectives and examine her radical and bohemian beginnings in 1950s London, reappraising one of the most important British sculptors of the twentieth century.

Frink’s work will be placed alongside that of other modern masters, most notably Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Rodin, Francis Bacon, Germaine Richier and Louise Bourgeois.

In addition, work by two exciting contemporary artists, Douglas Gordon and Rebecca Warren, will also provide a wider context to explore themes important to Frink.

Elisabeth Frink photographed by Edward Pool, c.1964-5

Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals will trace the evolution of Frink’s work over four decades, presenting the major themes in her practice and paying significant attention to her early work in the context of artists such as Rodin, Giacometti and Richier who inspired her.

The relationship between humans and animals was central for Frink and one she returned to throughout her life. Whilst offering exciting contemporary possibilities both metaphorically and directly, she was conscious of the fact that animals appear in art from the very earliest times and that their relationship with humans and animals is interdependent.

Frink rose to prominence while still a student at Chelsea College of Art in 1952, when she had her first major gallery exhibition and won a prize in the international competition for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner.

During this period, she created a series of expressionist bird sculptures, which for her, evoked ‘strong feelings of panic, tension, aggression and predatoriness’.

Frink created one of the most succinct responses to the Second World War and to the climate of fear generated by the encroaching Cold War.

Elisabeth Frink, Bird, 1952. Photograph Ken Adlard. © Tully and Bree Jammet

Powerful examples of this series of sculptures will include Bird (1952), purchased by Tate from Frink’s first major exhibition and Vulture (1952). For Frink the bird-form became an avatar evoking an extreme sense of menace, fear and panic. 21 of these remarkable works will go on display and will be presented alongside works of a similarly foreboding and animalistic nature by Bourgeois and Richier.

Mirage I and II (1969), presented outside in the Sainsbury Centre’s 350-acre Sculpture Park at the University of East Anglia, will provide an appropriate natural setting for these major works and a lasting legacy of the exhibition.

The bird forms evolved into man-bird hybrids, falling or spinning through space. These works were inspired by vivid childhood memories of living next to a World War Two airfield where Frink witnessed planes and pilots falling from the sky. Frink’s Birdman (1959) was further inspired by the adventurer Léo Valentin, the self-styled ‘birdman’, who fell to his death after attempting flight with his hand-made wings.

Birdman will be shown alongside the work of César Baldaccini who also responded to the shock of Valentin’s demise and such references demonstrate how Frink was constantly responding to current events and the mass media. For instance, the ‘Space Race’ was also a crucial theme, with Frink’s helmeted figures Spinning Man I and II (1960). Associated drawings echo images of early cosmonauts such as Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space.

Elisabeth Frink, Goggle Head, 1969. Photograph Pete Huggins © Tully and Bree Jammet

Frink’s most famous and unique theme is a series of Goggle Heads (1967-69) and Tribute Heads (1970s-80s). 10 of these larger-than-life-size bronze heads will be presented in the exhibition, the first time so many have been displayed together. Like other great twentieth century artists such as Bacon and Picasso, Frink explores the binary attributes of human behavior, representing man as both aggressor and victim. The Goggle Heads were based in part on the likeness of Mohamed Oufkir, who during the 1960s and 70s became a notorious mastermind of state orchestrated terror in post-independent Morocco. In contrast, the Tribute Heads commemorate the victims of acts of brutality or martyrs to a cause.

A further significant section will explore Frink’s concern with the figure of the warrior, culminating in her magnificent yet terrifying Riace warriors, shown as a full quartet for the first time in decades. This section of the exhibition will demonstrate Frink’s unique treatment of the warrior as aggressor but also as a brutalised victim, and the contradictory forces of masculinity and vulnerability. Frink’s iconic Running Man, a theme she explored between 1978 and 1980, represents passive resistance and humanity’s ability to strive against adversity.

Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals will feature a number of the artist’s final works, influenced by the ancient, folkloric figure of the Green Man. Drawing solace just before her death in this motif’s associations with rebirth and fresh life, this section will evidence how the natural world was a fertile source of inspiration at the core of Frink’s oeuvre.

The exhibition has been developed in full collaboration with the Elisabeth Frink Estate, and will include a large number of loans from the Elisabeth Frink Estate, Tate, The Ingram Collection, and private lenders alongside important examples from the Sainsbury Centre’s own Collection.

Elisabeth Frink, Mirage I & II, 1969. Photo by William J. Hebert, courtesy of Frederik Meijer Garden