Nick Hackworth

The Upright Figure, Tate Modern

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Between showing five new installations, the Tate will be filling its massive Turbine Hall with works from its permanent collection.

The Upright Figure is the first of these exhibitions. Seventeen life-sized sculptures of the upright human form are divided into three groups, with an additional related display of three pieces by Henry Moore on the balcony area above. The exhibition is a good deal better than any of the commissioned installations have been. It spans a century, including classically realist, semi-abstract and almost totally abstract attempts to capture the human form. And it suggests that, despite the 20th century assault on figuration, the human form is not an exhausted subject.

In the first group stand five figurative sculptures from between the late 1890s and the early 1920s. They include Renoir’s curvy Venus Victorious, holding out the apple that Paris has given her for winning his
beauty contest.

By the time we reach the second group (mostly from the 1940s and 1950s), the formal lessons of modernism and the atrocities of the Second World War have made their mark.

A headless and armless Giacometti shares the space with pieces by Barbara Hepworth, William Turnball and Reg Butler. Butler’s Woman, made of welded steel, resembles a relic from the Bronze Age, the only immediately recognisable feature being a fierce, lidless eye.

The final grouping includes Leonard McComb’s Portrait of a Young Man Standing, a vital image of mankind, with its upward gaze and shining skin expressing defiance of the Cold War. Behind it stands one of Antony Gormley’s lead casts of his own body, with feet planted shoulder-width apart and hands outstretched in a gesture of surprise — or possibly worship.

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