William Turnbull’s retrospective exhibition celebrates the centenary of the artist’s birth

Offer Waterman and the Estate of William Turnbull present William Turnbull's retrospective in London, highlighting the artist's prowess to create both paintings and sculptures.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jul 20, 2022

Offer Waterman and the Estate of William Turnbull are presenting William Turnbull’s retrospective exhibition at Frieze's exhibition space at No.9 Cork Street to celebrate the centenary of the artist’s birth. Offer Waterman has exclusively represented the artist’s estate since 2015. Staged across six rooms and two floors, the exhibition puts on display close to 60 paintings and sculptures along with a selected number of works on paper from the late 1940s. To give viewers an opportunity to see a comprehensive exhibition, large parts of the works come directly from the estate, complemented by major loans from private collections.

Installation view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective at No.9 Cork Street, presented by Offer Waterman and the Turnbull Studio | William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | STIRworld
Installation view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective at No.9 Cork Street, presented by Offer Waterman and the Turnbull Studio Image: Courtesy of Offer Waterman

Turnbull, a Scottish sculptor and painter, is known for his figurative and minimalist sculptures as well as abstract paintings. While studying art in evening classes, Turnbull also worked as an illustrator for the local publishing house, DC Thompson. Soon after serving as an RAF pilot in the Second World War, Turnbull studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. However, the art scene in London only dismayed him, which made him move to Paris in 1948. It was here that he met the prominent sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Alberto Giacometti amongst others, who continued to inspire him even after his return to London in 1950.

Installation view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | STIRworld
Installation view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective Image: Courtesy of Offer Waterman

Described by Nicholas Serota, appointed Director of the Tate in 1988, as “an exceptional artist, unusually gifted both as a painter and a sculptor”, the post-war modernist Turnbull was a key member of the ‘Independent Group’ working at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. During this time, he was around figures including Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, and Eduardo Paolozzi. Since the group focussed on the realities of the modern world – it was of major influence on British pop art. Turnbull reinterpreted the ancient and non-western art to allow the viewers to glance at it in a simplified form. It was his participation in the exhibition New Aspects of British Sculpture, held in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1952, which rightly gave him visibility in the international art scene.

Yin Yang 5, 1959, Oil on Canvas | William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | STIRworld
Yin Yang 5, 1959, Oil on canvas Image: Courtesy of Offer Waterman

In an interview with STIR, Emily Scarlett Drablow, Director and Head of Research, Offer Waterman, talks about the curatorial approach to engage the present-day audience with the works of Turnbull, “2022 marks the centenary of William Turnbull’s birth. It seemed only fitting to mark this important occasion with a retrospective of the artist’s work, showcasing key works from all periods of his career. Although Turnbull was equal parts sculptor and painter, some only know him for his three-dimensional work. In this retrospective, we aimed to bring awareness of his talent in both disciplines and the cross-fertilisation between the two. To make this exhibition engaging we have created an audio guide, as well as explanatory wall texts and are showing screenings of Beyond Time, the 2011 documentary on the artist, on Saturdays during the run of the exhibition.”

Installation view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective; William Turnbull post-war Modernists | William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | STIRworld
Installation view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective; William Turnbull post-war Modernists Image: Courtesy of Offer Waterman

This retrospective begins in 1949, a year after Turnbull left London and the Slade to relocate to the more artistically experimental and exciting environment of Paris. Interestingly, before creating the static sculptures, Turnbull created kinetic sculptures. This transition underscored the fact that "ultimate movement is ultimate rest”, as mentioned in the press release. The three sculptures on display - Forms on a Base, Maquette for Large Sculpture and Torque Upwards - created from 1949 embrace this idea.

Installation view of Landscape, 1957, Oil and Sand on canvas, and Idol, 1988, Bronze | William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | STIRworld
Installation view of Landscape, 1957, Oil and Sand on canvas, and Idol, 1988, Bronze Image: Courtesy of Offer Waterman

To mention, in 2006 and in 2013, a survey exhibition of his sculptures was mounted at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain. Synonymous with Turnbull, the totem sculptures are displayed along with the abstract ‘river’ paintings. These paintings were inspired by the aerial views of the jungle: experienced as a pilot in the World War II. A mix of bronze and woods and stones, the sculptures carry a fine contrast of colours and textures. Few of these sculptures with the title Agamemnon, Oedipus 3, and Janus 1, hint at Turbull interests towards classical Greek and Roman mythology.

A group of Turnbull’s monumental, vibrant colour-field paintings were informed by a trip to New York in 1957 during which Turnbull met abstract expressionists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. The exhibition introduces some of the most crucial themes of Turnbull’s career: the horse, the female figure and the human head. The artist had five approaches to the horse as a subject — textured, angular planes of Turnbull’s upright, monolithic Pegasus to the pared-back linear form of Horse 3. The room, devoted to the human head motif, includes a series of seven masks which were made in 1953. To borrow Turnbull's words, mentioned in the press release, these masks, "attempt to fix that which is most continuously fleeting and mobile – the expression on a face".

The head also appears in numerous paintings from the 1950s, three examples of which are on show, including a large 60-inch-high canvas Calligraphic Head. Turnbull explained that he had not wanted, "to transpose the head from three-dimensional reality to a flat surface - but to imagine what ahead would be if flat (squeezed between two pieces of glass like a micro-slide) and made of paint marks."

Outside view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective | STIRworld
Outside view of William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective Image: Courtesy of Offer Waterman

The exhibition also showcases the seven standing female figures from the 1950s and the 1980s. While earlier sculptures such as War Goddess carry a blocky appearance, which is abstracted and geometric, the works such as Paddle Venus 2 carry silhouettes - a thin profile and a clear front and back aspect. The decorative surface elements of each bronze are underscored with puncture holes and fine incised lines. To mention, the piercing eyes cannot miss the patination of individual casts.

With the retrospective in the 21st century, Drablow hopes the audience will once again recognise Turnbull as a truly international modern artist who was singular in his vision. He was capable of working across mediums to produce bodies of work that complement and inform one another.

Artist William Turnbull | STIRworld
Artist William Turnbull Image: Courtesy of Sam Talbot

The exhibition William Turnbull: Centenary Retrospective is on view at No.9 Cork Street until July 20, 2022.

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