In the early 1970s Turnbull took a break from sculpture convinced that he had taken his industrial minimalist work as far as he could, and for a few years he turned his attention to painting. It wasn’t until Richard Morphet organised a retrospective of his work at the Tate in 1973 that Turnbull returned to sculpture. On viewing the exhibition Turnbull became conscious of common ideas and themes, which ran through his work, despite his efforts of trying to avoid stylistic consistency. Inspired by this revelation Turnbull set to work on a series of small clay figures playing with the shapes and forms of his previous pieces, such as those of the 1950s, to discover new directions for future works.
From 1979 Turnbull began to work on a larger scale and began to develop his archeological tool figures of previous years into grander pieces. The work of the 1980s, therefore, can be seen to relate to his earlier work of the 1950s in form, but yet are also derivative from the steel works of the 1960s in their emphasis on clearly pronounced, smooth, planar forms. Turnbull took the simple forms of everyday objects, such as tools, and transformed them into objects of spiritual contemplation or ‘idols’ as they became known. This process of transforming a practical object into art and the experience and physicality of doing so was of great significance to Turnbull and was a particular focus in his later years. Amanda Davidson explains this shift in his work, she comments, ‘His earlier Idols echoed ancient figures that had become dislocated from any specific religious context: they provoked a sense of lost divinity and of the spiritual nature of art. The new idols not only reflect the spiritual nature of art in a secular society but also go on to ask questions about the value and use of various subjects and of artworks themselves’ (A.A. Davidson, The Sculpture of William Turnbull, Much Hadham, 2005, p. 62). The archetypal, almost totemic bronze figures of this period although informed by the clear and often slender forms of earlier examples are now smoother in surface, inscribed with fine marks on varying colour patinas, which he experimented with at this time.
As in Large Metamorphic Venus there is an emphasis on metamorphism in Turnbull’s 1980s works. Davidson reiterates, ‘The later idols are overt combinations of abstract figures, primitive tools, modern objects and religious statues, exploring ideas of change and metamorphosis and their relationship between the past, present and future’. She continues, ‘However, these idols are also detached and unassertive, resisting polemic and drama, inviting the viewers to invest them with whatever metaphoric symbolism they wish, rather than imposing any values upon them’ (ibid., p. 63). This notion of symbolic flexibility was important to Turnbull and he purposefully simplified forms to create ambiguity. Turnbull explained the importance of ambiguity to his aesthetic, he stated, ‘Ambiguity can give the image a wide frame of reference… It creates cross-reference between something that looks like an object and that looks like an image. For me in making sculpture there is always that tension between the sculpture as object and the sculpture as image’ (Turnbull quoted in ibid., p. 64).
Large Metamorphic Venus, like other metamorphic works of the period, abstrusely hints at a variety of images, freeing them from any historical or cultural grounding, which allows the viewer to form their own interpretations. Although in the present work we can see elements of Turnbull’s interest in African and Oceanic cultures in the reference to ancient fertility figurines and primitive tools. The piece is also distinctly indicative of the female body with raised bumps that are suggestive of a nose form and breasts. There are references to the goddess Venus and her associations with fertility, love and beauty, implied in the title and in the modeling of the piece, with its flat front and curved reverse. There are no modeled limbs, instead a few parallel grooves scored into the edges of the piece and a horizontal line near its base are suggestive of arms, legs and a torso. The delicacy in their carving implies three-dimensional form but do not detract from the unity of the piece. Its simplified form and smooth surface create a striking and harmonious effect, the sculpture perfectly balanced and poised in space.
Patrick Elliott described, ‘Whatever the material and technique, the work is always characterised by simple, clearly articulated forms. It is not a stylistic quality that binds his work together, indeed one can hardly speak of his work as having a particular style. It is more to do with a consistent way of thinking, a way of thinking characterised by lucidity, decisiveness and economy of expression.’ (P. Elliott, ‘William Turnbull: A Consistent Way of Thinking’ in P. Elliott and D. Sylvester, William Turnbull sculpture and paintings, London, 1995, p. 74) This ‘consistent way of thinking’ and unique artistic vision has ensured that Turnbull is remembered as one of the most significant modern British sculptors of the Twentieth and Twenty First centuries. Despite his experimentation and varied aesthetics there always remains a clear dialogue with his audience, the ambiguity of all his pieces drawing people in to conversation, captivated by the mystery that eludes his work.