Conceived in 1988, Back to Venice occupies a pivotal place in Lynn Chadwick’s oeuvre, representing a moment of intense reflection and retrospection for the artist as he looked back on a seminal moment in his career: his ground-breaking exhibition at the twenty-eighth Venice Biennale, in 1956, where he was awarded the prestigious International Grand Prix for Sculpture. It was this victory which truly launched Chadwick to international prominence, earning him a wealth of critical praise around the world, and cementing his position as a leading figure in the artistic landscape of post-war Britain. Representing the culmination of over thirty years of artistic experimentation and evolution, this monumental work embodies many of the key stylistic and thematic features which Chadwick had explored over the course of his career, as he sought to showcase the developments that had occurred in his style over the intervening decades.
Born in Barnes, South-West London, Chadwick trained as an architectural draughtsman before serving in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He returned to the profession following his demobilisation in 1944, but began to focus increasingly on design-led projects in the ensuing years, creating plans for furniture and developing award-winning textile patterns. His first sculpture emerged in 1947, a delicate mobile whose playful sense of movement and lightness of form was intended to attract visitors at design fairs, acting as an eye-catching contrast to the static constructions which populated the majority of the stands. This work quickly drew the attention of the London art world, earning Chadwick several commissions for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and leading to his inclusion in the group show of young British sculptors at the Venice Biennale in 1952. While this show increased the artist’s visibility on an international stage, it was the exhibition he staged four years later at the same festival that would prove to be a defining moment in Chadwick’s career.
Chosen to represent Great Britain alongside the painter Ivon Hitchens, Chadwick was asked to stage a one-man exhibition of his sculptures in the country’s pavilion at the 1956 Biennale. The choice of Chadwick as the sole representation of British sculpture at the international exhibition was unexpected, not least by the artist himself. As he explained: ‘Being included in the Venice Biennale was a shock. I was really, in my own mind, not ready for such a thing. When I was told [by the British Council] that I was going to represent Britain, I said ‘Wouldn’t it be better if I shared it with someone else?’’ (Chadwick, quoted in E. Lucie-Smith, Chadwick, Gloucestershire, 1997, p. 26). At this stage in his career, Chadwick had been sculpting for less than a decade, and had only received his first exhibition in 1950. He felt unprepared for the weight of responsibility that a solo-representation carried, but nevertheless threw himself into preparations for the event. The exhibition was roundly praised on its opening, with numerous critics singling Chadwick out for commendation. Alan Bowness in his review of the event wrote: ‘Chadwick has been one of the revelations of the Biennale. Quite apart from the distinguished and highly original quality of his imagination, it is the beauty and sensitivity of execution that impresses’ (A. Bowness, quoted in D. Farr, Lynn Chadwick, London, 2003, p. 44). Having said this, the artist’s win of the Grand Prix for Sculpture still came as something of a surprise, as he beat more established figures including Alberto Giacometti and Giacomo Manzù to become the youngest post-war recipient of the award.
In recognition of this extraordinary moment at the festival thirty-two years previously, the British Council invited Chadwick to return to Venice in 1988 and create a large sculpture for the garden of the British Pavilion, to be sited alongside works by Anthony Caro, Phillip King and Joe Tilson. Wittily titled Back to Venice, the resulting artwork represents the summation of a number of the thematic concerns and motifs which had occupied Chadwick across the intervening decades, particularly the seated couple, and the tensions and relationships that arise between two forms when juxtaposed alongside one another. Presenting two frontally posed figures seated on a bench, the sculpture is imbued with an innate stillness and serenity. Both characters carry a distinctly regal air, their monumental forms appearing magisterial as they gaze outwards towards the viewer. This sense of stillness, when coupled with their direct frontality, recalls examples of sculptural portraits of married couples from Ancient Egyptian culture, a subject which also inspired Chadwick’s contemporary, Henry Moore.
As with the Egyptian examples, Back to Venice is marked by a clear division of gender, the forms and accoutrements of the figures suggesting a male-female coupling. This is revealed most clearly in the treatment of the forms – the woman is more lightly built, her shoulders sloping at a gentler angle and her body appearing softer and rounder than that of her male partner. He, in turn, occupies a weightier stance, his mass and angularity more forcefully expressed, while the addition of a deep fissure to his body, which runs the length of his torso, reveals a sharper sense of form. In addition to this, the artist incorporates geometric symbols into his sculpture in order to identify the gender of his characters, applying two differently shaped heads to each. A common feature of his idiosyncratic artistic vocabulary, the square or cube typically denotes a male character, while the triangular or pyramidal shape is used to identify a female.
This distinction is further emphasised by the clothing which drapes the two figures – the female figure retains vestiges of a skirt or dress around her lower body, the soft material flowing around her hips and onto the bench. Similarly, the male’s torso is marked by sharply angular rectangles arranged diagonally across his collar bone, which appear to suggest the collar of a shirt. The evenly spaced folds of the drapery across the back of both figures is achieved using a French plasterer’s comb, which Chadwick dragged through the wet material during the earliest stages of the sculpture’s design process to produce a delicate sequence of ribbed, horizontal lines which, when cast in bronze, produces a rich, dynamic texture. These delicate textures, along with the subtle colourings of the bronze and the accurate stance of his figures, were integral to Chadwick’s vision, and the artist set up and ran his own foundry on the grounds of his home to ensure they were accurately translated into bronze during the casting process.
In Back to Venice, the two forms generate a shared energy, as their bodies seem to respond and reflect one another across the precisely judged gap which separates them. The male seems to lean very slightly to his right, an impression enhanced by the fact that his left leg extends forwards past the other. This causes the line of his shoulders to tilt upwards towards the centre of the sculpture, a pose echoed by that of the female figure. In her case, her left shoulder drops considerably towards her hips, giving her a highly asymmetrical pose as she responds to the form of her partner. These angles and distances are carefully calculated to instil the figures with a certain ‘attitude,’ an element of sculpture which Chadwick saw as essential to the power and character of his figures. Through the angles of the figure, the subtle bending of their neck, the positioning of the head or the weight within the body, Chadwick believed he could make his sculptures speak, as it were. ‘If you can get their physical attitudes right,’ Chadwick explained, ‘you can spell out a message’ (Chadwick, quoted in M. Bird, Lynn Chadwick, Surrey, 2014, p. 147).
These subtle shifts in posture imbue the sculpture with a decidedly human presence, despite the fact that the two figures are constructed through a series of angular abstract forms. In this way, Chadwick moves beyond a focus on the formal qualities of the human body, beyond their distillation into abstract forms, to a more in-depth examination of the relationship that exists between his two figures, exploring how they relate to one another on an emotional level as well as in a formal or physical sense. Although they do not touch one another, nor engage in eye contact, there is an intimacy to the relationship of the couple, a sense of connectedness achieved in the careful balancing of their forms. This internal tension is a clear development of Chadwick’s artistic vision, which builds on the formal and technical innovations of the artist’s youth and marries it with the careful observation and distillation of human nature that experience and age bring.