To commemorate the anniversary of her death, The Sainsbury Centre have assembled the largest collection of Elisabeth Frink’s work (Humans and Other Animals) for 25 years in tribute to the influence she had on the Art world. With over 130 pieces on display by Frink and other influential artists – some never before displayed in public – the exhibition truly is spectacular. But this is not what makes this exhibition feel so contemporary. Frink was born in 1930 into an army family. Her formative years were taken up by some of the bloodiest and most gruesome sights that this world has ever seen, and this is immediately prevalent in her work. Although she was known as a bright and engaging person, her work is quite the opposite: dark, brooding and distinctly sad.
Elisabeth Frink was concerned, first and foremost, with humanity and ‘human behaviour’ which she believed was eternally wounded by the events of the 20th century, stating that ‘we are becoming brutalised, we no longer respond properly to the atrocities’. And I think that many of us can really empathise with this statement. In a world so full of hatred, this exhibition is the first place where I have felt those emotions truly realised. Although we are not experiencing war the way that Frink did, we as a planet have no shortage of hatred and brutality to be affected by.
Perhaps most obviously reflecting this confusing worldview is Frinks motif of the warrior: a solid, naked, male figure who is at once both strong and vulnerable (and aren’t all humans, in their own ways?). They embody the idea that it is the nature of both animals and humans to fight and protect all at once in what is perhaps the most polar of all life’s opposites. In fact, the human form is found throughout Frink’s work, always pushing the limits of a body, as with The Running Man or The Bird Man. The latter is both human and not, and surprisingly without wings or feathers.
Amongst this array of male bodies stands some of Frink’s earlier work. The display of birds, reflecting the flighty, protective, aggressive, beautiful nature of human beings is simply stunning. These are contrasted perfectly with works from Frink’s contemporaries and current artists, my favourite being Louise Bourgeois’s Spider II, which is so familiar yet utterly alien. They suggest that emotion and humanity aren’t synonymous with human beings themselves; an animal may feel as much love or sorrow as a human, or conversely that a human could feel less remorse or compassion than an animal.
However, throughout her battle with cancer until her death in 1993, Frink changed her focus to images of The Green Man; a more uplifting side to humanity associated with rebirth and new life. Perhaps, in facing her own death, her opinions towards humanity became more positive, or perhaps it was to ease her own existentialism. We will never know.
In short, this exhibition is about using art to reflect the utter hopelessness of a generation engulfed in war, threat and genocide, while at the same time embracing the naturalness of what it means to be a human being. I think that this exhibition really is the centrepiece that we need right now, if only to help us as individuals to understand that it’s okay not to be happy with the state of the world and that it is important for us to remain affected by the violence we see so often in our lives. It reminds us of what it means to be human; hope and hopelessness, aggression and protection, pain and beauty. I think that we witness enough today to need this reminder and we need to know that we can turn these emotions into something beautiful.