‘It seems to me that art must be the manifestation of some vital force coming from the dark, caught by the imagination and translated by the artist's ability and skill into painting, poetry, sometimes music ... Whatever the final shape, the force behind is ... indivisible. When we philosophise upon this force, we lose sight of it. The intellect alone is still too clumsy to grasp it' (L. Chadwick, A Sculptor and his Public, 1954).
Standing at 73 inches tall Encounter VII, 1957, is one of the largest and most striking of Chadwick’s unique works from the 1950s. With its twisted and contorted shell-like body and insect-like heads, which inquisitively face one anther, atop needle-sharp legs, Encounter VII stands as a dichotomy between abstraction and the figurative, with Chadwick pushing the boundaries of 20th Century British sculpture.
Conceived in 1957, after two pivotal Venice Biennales, Encounter VII is representative of a seminal moment in Chadwick’s career. The first Biennale, of 1952, at the invitation of the British Council to exhibit four sculptures in the British Pavilion, launched Chadwick’s work before an international audience. Subsequently, at the 1956 Biennale, Chadwick became the youngest post-war artist to win the prize for sculpture, with his nineteen sculptures and twenty drawings produced between 1951 and 1956, judged to be worthier of the prize than Giacometti, the favourite, who came second. Another pivotal moment in Chadwick’s career was his inclusion in the worldwide sculpture competition organised by the ICA in March 1953, four years prior to Encounter VII. This show was organised to commemorate or symbolise the theme of ‘The Unknown Political Prisoner’, with each competing for the chance to design a memorial to ‘all those unknown men and women who in our time have been deprived of their lives or their liberty in the cause of human freedom’ (A. Kloman (intro.), exhibition catalogue, The Unknown Political Prisoner: International Sculpture Competition Sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Tate Gallery, 1953). Chadwick was selected as one of twelve semi-finalists, and won an honourable mention and £250, with Reg Butler being awarded first prize.
With its sharp angular contours and insect-like form, Encounter VII characterises in many ways the consciousness of the new generation of British sculpture that emerged in the 1950s. At the 1952 Biennale, Chadwick was one of the eight younger artists who formed New Aspects of British Sculpture including: Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Robert Adams, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. In his introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition, Herbert Read wrote, ‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair or of defiance; and the more innocence of the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, of ragged claws … of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear … They have seized Eliot's image of the Hollow Men, and given it an isomorphic materiality. They have peopled the Waste Land with their iron waifs' (H. Read, quoted in exhibition catalogue, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, British Council, XXVI Venice Biennale, 1952). While Italian critic Gillo Dorfles singled out Chadwick's 'asymmetrical entities', which seemed to enact 'a precarious games of thrusts and counter-thrusts, of voids and fullnesses, of teeth which grip to comb and lacerated the hair of an etheric and invisible man' (Fiera Letteraria, 29 June 1952).
Although the phrase ‘geometry of fear’ resounded as a somewhat hackneyed critical cliché, which generalised what was an exhibition of greatly differing artists and styles, what it did signify was the recognition of the emergence of a new aesthetic in British sculpture. The surface of a new sculptural vernacular was also picked up by critics, who called the British Pavilion, ‘the most vital, the most brilliant, and the most promising in the whole Biennale' (R. Calvocoressi, exhibition catalogue, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1981, p. 143). Read’s raw and violent description of these young sculptors work also acknowledged and reflected the deeply troubling age in which they were working. Created in a world still recovering from the Second World War and a political climate seemingly teetering on the edge of nuclear war, Chadwick’s Encounter VII and its post-apocalyptic form conjures images both of the blackened devastation of an atomic bomb and the living creatures which one might imagine could mutate from such an event.
The result of this significantly transitional moment in Chadwick’s career manifests itself here in an ethereal delicate beauty, which is highlighted through Chadwick’s elongated, elegant asymmetrical forms, which poetically interlock with one another, becoming one body. Encounter VII indicates a rapid development towards Chadwick’s mature idiom, presaging too his subsequent preoccupation with standing figures and groups. What is notable here is Chadwick’s play with material, relishing in the texture of his iron and composition medium, to create his multi-faceted, contorted, almost armoured forms, delighting in the interplay between solid and void.
The use of iron and composition in his early works, as seen in Encounter VII is discussed in greater detail by Dennis Farr, who states that: 'an elaborate and carefully constructed web of welded rods ... form triangular units that are joined together at various angles to express the planes and sharp contours of [its] body, the whole supported on four thinly tapered forged legs ... the interstices of this web are filled with 'Stolit', an industrial artificial stone compound of gypsum and iron powder, which is applied wet like plaster and which, on drying, sets glass-hard. It can then be worked and chased, coloured, or more usually left to weather. The iron armatures rust and expand on contact with moisture absorbed by Stolit, so that straight profiles become subtly curved with the passage of time, especially if the sculpture is left in a damp environment.’ He concludes, ‘The ribbed texture produced by this method imparts a fossilized look to the sculpture that suggests some skeletal prehistoric creature. The effect is at once eerie and startling' (D. Farr and E. Chadwick, op. cit., p. 22).