Figuratively Speaking

The following article first featured in March 2004’s issue of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article explored the artistic value and controversy of curating both traditional and contemporary figurative sculpture in the public realm today.

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Figuratively Speaking  An exploration into the artistic value of traditional portrait sculpture

by Ian Banks

Prospect NW Issue 7 March 2004

As one of the most famous examples of ancient public art, the aesthetic perfection in form and craft of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ has been well documented over the years. He is depicted, as the underdog’s hero and envy prior to battle with Goliath – with the slingshot over his shoulder almost invisible, to emphasise that the swift victory of political justice to come will be one of cleverness, not sheer brute force.

Such anatomical and political correctness continues to walk hand in hand, within the art of much modern figurative sculpture today. Deviations from this dual mantra are often more to do with an artist’s (or commissioner’s) unconscious lack of ability, vision and scale than through a desire to push artistic and political boundaries through more abstracted work. Of course, challenging notions for such figured art should not preclude hybrid attempts to contrast scholarly approaches of pure anatomical craft with a contemporary desire to question our changing world and place within it – indeed, great art should not have to compulsorily abstract or obscure in order for it to be judged worthy.

One thing that figurative sculpture certainly does continue to do is create critical debate between ‘art world’ and general public alike about artistic merit – whilst leaving those professionals in charge of developing such public art within the physical realm somewhat mystified as to who to follow, and (arguably more critical) who might eventually pay for it. No where is this more so at present than in the heated political cauldron of London’s Trafalgar Square, where designs to install a traditional bronze of Nelson Mandela are causing almost as much controversy as the six contemporary artist maquettes currently proposed for the much hyped Fourth Plinth Project. The problem with artist Ian Walter’s proposal for the Mandela portrait is that although Mayor Ken Livingstone is a firm supporter (a dubious honour perhaps!), the Westminster Public Arts Committee feels that the aesthetics of the hands pose a problem – they don’t like their size or the shape. Livingston feels there is a hidden agenda of council resistance behind this rejection based on historic political prejudice rather than the artistic proportions of human form.

In complete contrast, the current debate around the vacant Fourth Plinth (originally created in 1841 by Charles Barry to display an equestrian based statue of William IV that was never realised), was reawakened when the RSA and ‘Sculpture at Goodwood’ charitable organisations initiated their highly innovative temporary public art on-a-plinth project. Within the new programme for 2004, there is an intention to build one of six schemes designed specifically for the location by different artists. Of the alternatives, for me the only one that really stands out significantly is the proposal by artist Marc Quinn called ‘Alison Lapper pregnant’. Envisaged as a figure sitting upon the plinth, this is a study in traditionally carved White Marble of the naked and physically disabled artist Lapper when she was 8 ½ months pregnant with her son Parys. As the Fourth Plinth web site points out, on first consideration there are few examples of public sculptures of people with disabilities around until one remembers armless and half-blind Nelson stood atop his great phallus! Quinn maintains that faced with such male domination of Trafalgar Square a redress to a “new model of feminine heroism” to conquer circumstance and prejudice was needed. He believes his proposal will also counter balance the statue of Boudicca near the Houses of Parliament – which seems rather apt when one notes that a recent Planning Approved proposal for a sculpture (also by Mandela artist Ian Walter) of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, to be located adjacently, was turned down by the House of Lords last year partly on the grounds of her having been jailed for sedition in the early 1900’s!

What is more likely to divide the art establishment (rather than mainstream public) support however is the use of traditional life-like anatomical representation in the artwork rather than the physically disabled subject matter itself. That said, an abstract quality of the work does comes into play via the honesty in portraying the extent of physical disability and in the questions it asks of society in it not wanting to be openly confronted by it. Ironically, this latter issue is more likely to be the main sticking point in gaining any resultant approval from a conservative public. Indeed, because Marc Quinn himself is not disabled, it would be interesting to know what the reaction to a similar piece would be if it had been made by an artist such as Alison Lapper herself, whose own excellent work represents her naked disability without compromise through vivid self-portrait photography.

The whole issue of subjective opinion and accurate anatomical portrayal in public art raises all kinds of strange arguments, and one has only to look at the recent racial divide created in Rocky Mount, USA over artist Erik Blome’s civic-commissioned statue of Dr Martin Luther King to realise it is an almost un-winnable debate when emotive issues are at stake. Here the main community criticism of the artist appears to be that he was white – and thus supposedly incapable of relating to Black issues and creating an authentic “African” pose and face for Dr King.

This of course puts into perspective the wholly easier debate over our Fourth Plinth choices. My personal hope is for both mainstream and art establishment support of an exemplary figurative work, resulting in the eventual realisation of Quinn’s piece. Surely this must be the case when one compares the already well received Fourth Plinth work of the Christ-like ‘Ecce Homme’ by Mark Wallinger, the current civic desire to realise the Mandela sculpture, as well as the public’s own original figurative preferences (550 ideas collected by DCMS via Sir John Mortimer’s Advisory Group, called for statues of James Cook, the Queen, Princess Diana, Mahatma Gandhi and David Beckham, amongst others). Of course all of this will probably be upstaged when the inevitable statue of Jonny Wilkinson is eventually unveiled, to pose like a heroic David (Michelangelo’s not Sven’s of course) alongside Nelson – that is, all assuming his strong hands, beautiful face and cocked drop-goal posture can all be crafted anatomically in perfect proportion to everyone’s approval beforehand!

Further information on Marc Quinn and the Fourth Plinth Project generally can be viewed on . Alison Lapper’s work can be viewed on

The RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce) is a charity that “encourages development of a principled prosperous society and the release of human potential” –

Sculpture at Goodwood is a charitable foundation that aims to globally promote and enable British sculpture through a vigorous commissioning programme –

Ian Banks is a chartered architect and current Public Art & Architecture Officer at Arts Council England, North West, a post co-funded by RIBA NW and Northwest Development Agency

General information on public art and the stakeholder partnership can be viewed on the information portal

Categories: Writing

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