‘My sculptures of the male figure are both man and mankind. In these two categories are all the sources of all my ideas for the human figure … I like to watch a man walking and swimming and running and being ... I can sense in a man’s body a combination of strength and vulnerability – not as weakness but as the capacity to survive through stoicism or passive resistance, or to suffer or feel’ (E. Frink, quoted in B. Robertson (intro.), Elisabeth Frink Sculpture: Catalogue Raisonné, Salisbury, 1984, pp. 36-37).
One of the most recognisable and powerful motifs in her career, the male figure demonstrates Elisabeth Frink’s preoccupation with exploring complexities of the human condition. Where principally male artists were depicting women as muses or nurturing mother figures, Frink set herself apart from her contemporaries, her focus on the male going against the emerging abstract expressionist trajectory of 20th Century artwork. Influenced by childhood experiences of war and her empathetic views on amnesty, Frink viewed the image of man as a sensual vessel, fascinated with capturing both the tranquility and volatile state of humans, together with the culpability of mans’ actions on one another and nature.
Portrayal of these traits of humankind became a driving force for Frink, striving to capture this feeling of a man over its anatomical accuracy or beauty. This theme continued throughout her oeuvre and was key to establishing her unique style and her place as one of the most influential Modern British sculptors. As she developed her widely celebrated male busts into imposing full length nudes of anonymous men captured in various states: standing, sitting, falling and riding horses, the running man series, which began in the mid-1970s became a particularly dominant theme. The present work is a late example of this, with evident influence from Alberto Giacometti and Germaine Richier’s existentialist approach to figurative sculpture.
A solitary figure, Running Man (Front Runner) is dynamically frozen mid-stride, advancing towards an unknown destination. Conceived in 1986, the same year as Frink’s Riace Warrior sculptures, the figure captures both the strength and brutality of man with a similar warrior-like athleticism. The act of running, however, returns to and exposes Frink’s ideas of vulnerability, leaving the viewer questioning if the figure is running towards or fleeing from something. The exposed flesh and textured surface implies a certain contained energy and fragility inherent to human nature.
Constructing her figures in Plaster of Paris, Frink could work quickly to capture a fleeting moment in time, adding layers of mixed, gritty plaster and then re-working the material with axes, chisels and sandpaper. As such, the surfaces appear more fluid, enhancing the dynamism with their irregular shapes and shadows reacting and shifting dramatically in different lights. Annette Ratuszniak highlights this vivacity in Frink’s sculptures, noting that this three-dimensionality not only compels one to view her sculptures in their entirety, but also offers a physical perception of these figures truly ‘being’ in a space.
The present work resonates closely with Auguste Rodin’s celebrated bronze L’homme qui marche, circa 1890s. An early stimulus on her practice, Frink was drawn to Rodin’s modern aptitude to capture the autonomous body in motion. Despite appearing firmly grounded with both feet, the strong twisting torso balanced atop wide set legs appears to push forwards and transfer the robust physique forwards into space. With this, Rodin illustrates how the traditional representation of the body appears secondary to the latent energy within the human figure. He states, ‘It is not my walking man itself that interests me, rather the thought of how far he has come and how far he has yet to cover. This art, through suggestion, purposely extends beyond the figure sculptured’ (A. Rodin, quoted in C. Winner (ed.), Elisabeth Frink: Humans and Other Animals, Norwich, 2018, pp. 41-42).
Earlier depictions of falling or wounded male figures were strongly influenced by Frink’s experiences growing up during the Second World War. Surrounded by brave military soldiers such as her much-admired father, as well as witnessing frequent plane crashes and air raids, this body of work associated her with sculptors Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, and Reg Butler alongside the Geometry of Fear group. A somewhat romanticised view of men at war contrasts with these artists who personally witnessed the horrors of the front-line, and Frink’s self-proclaimed optimistic approach to life consequently led her figures to be reimagined with a sense of hope. Much like Frink’s In Memoriam head series, Running Man (Front Runner) is imbued with stoicism, his upright stance is confident, his wide eyes contemplative and he is free from any suffering he may have once endured.
Running Man (Front Runner) was commissioned by W.H. Smith for the company's headquarters in Swindon, Wiltshire.