Leonard Baskin


by Nicholas B. Penny, Director, National Gallery, London

The stationary figure in wind-blown cape or cope, the shrouded corpse, the nocturnal raptor, the veiled face, the dead crow. It would be hard to trace the significance of such silent sentinels, seers and portents in the sculptures of Leonard Baskin. Some of his subjects are drawn from, or suggested by, the Old Testament or Greek tragedy, some also parallel the favorite themes of his friend Ted Hughes. They are common to his prints, drawings and paintings as well, but most of them found their first expression in sculpture, the art-form to which Baskin was first drawn. And it is by examining the handling and tooling of his sculptures, and the formal preferences they reveal, that we may learn something about the ways he imparted drama—and an alarming life—to the still, the distant, and the dead. We may perhaps also detect how the processes of sculpture reinforced the hold that some of this imagery had over him.


At one extreme, there is ‘The Temple,’ a bronze of a female head with a bird standing upon it, unmistakably cast from wooden sculpture with qualities—frontality, vertical composition, compressed relation of human and beast—that are reminiscent of the tribal pole and post. The surface of the head retains the shallow concavities of the wood chisel, contrasting with the deeply gouged cuts that define the plumage.


At the other extreme is the bronze relief of a dead bird (cat. no. 7) with a surface which at first glance resembles hastily knife-spread butter, a superb illustration of the rapid modeling which is possible in clay, a medium Baskin distrusted for its “ready made mellifluousness.” It has sometimes been claimed that Baskin’s wood as a wood-engraver owed something to his experience as a wood-carver. This bronze, or rather the clay it reproduces, reminds us of the bold and decisive touch which is essential to certain types of painting.


Although trained as a sculptor in stone, Baskin abandoned this material after a decade or so, preferring to carve in wood, or to model, intermittently, especially for relief sculpture, in clay, or to work in plaster. Part of the attraction of plaster for him was the way that it can be built up and modeled, but only roughly, and be cut and filed, although not very finely. It is thus an exception to the conventional division between sculpture which is made by additive processes and that which is made by reductive ones.


Plaster had long been essential to the production of European sculpture. It was used by the formatore in the studio, the academy and the foundry; by the specialist who made death masks and life masks; by the assistants who cast replicas of clay models which could be pointed up, or replicas of classical statues to be copied; by the “hands” who assembled the moulds into which clay could be pressed or wax slushed or more plaster poured. In the mid-twentieth century the previously invisible or subordinate aspects of sculptural procedure began to play a more dominant role. The most notable example of this may be Giacometti’s allowing the armature (formerly concealed within the clay body) to determine the look of the models he sent to be cast. Likewise, many leading sculptors (Moore in Britain and Marini in Italy are examples) gave a new role to plaster, reproducing in bronze the dribbles of its manufacture when wet and the marks of the files and scrapers with which it was cut into shape when hard and dry. The appeal of plaster for Baskin lay in the fact that it could not only be filed and scraped but cut—with verve—using woodworking chisels.


Both the long, often curving, hollow cut and the deep, jagged cut—scoop and hack—are essential to Baskin’s sculpture, and surely, given the importance for him of drapery and plumage, essential to his imagery. When we consider the shrouds and swaddling in his work we should not only consider the impact made on his imagination by the Egyptian mummy and the French Gothic gisant but the echoes these might find in someone who used damp cloth to keep clay moist and who build up models with rags and old clothes dipped in plaster.


As for the veil, it is in a sense a natural subject for a sculptor, for, as the carver begins to define the features of a face or the contours of a body, they appear as if lightly covered (cat. no. 1). We may further observe that the sanded-down, partially eradicated face and the muffled and crushed look of features in a life cast or death mask also have their fascination—the eloquence of the mute spirit, or of those too distant to communicate directly or easily. The preoccupation with mortality so evident in Baskin’s art may have arisen partly from, and was certainly inseparable from, his recognition that the effigy, the inanimate body, was one of the fundamental subjects of sculpture. He had little interest in representing action or indeed in giving emphasis to the limbs. He had no aversion to the stumpy, even lumpy, and stubbornly inarticulate mass. The life is in the surface rather than in the silhouette.


Baskin was an avid collector and many of the objects that he gathered around him reflected—or fed—his interests as an artist, although he was not an artist who quoted from or alluded to the art of the past for the benefit of the campus sleuth. His collection of Renaissance ornament prints is recalled by his own entangled and fantastic etchings. His collections of casts from life—the fleet lizard burnt away and then reborn in metal, with even the miniature creases in its epidermis perfectly reproduced—tells us something about his preoccupation with the bronze-casting process, and may be related to his interest in the lava moulds of Pompeii and in death masks, perhaps also in fossils, which come to mind when we see the insect life in his reliefs (cat. no 8). His collection of medals and plaquettes reminds us not only of the medals he made but more generally of his interest in low relief and perhaps also in cryptic imagery with lapidary texts.


His attitude to the art of the past and indeed to history was unlike that of most of the artists of his time. There is no sense of his making claim to a lineage, whether of the Old Masters or the Avant-Garde (which was becoming a rigidly academic institution). There may be works that can be understood as acts of homage—to Tino di Camaino, to Ernst Barlach, to Thomas Eakins (in whose virtual rediscovery Baskin played a crucial part) and to Ted Hughes. But what strikes me as more important is the way that his collecting also reveals a preoccupation with mortality, for much that he collected had been forgotten or neglected when he tracked it down or dug it out. However powerful the impression made by his art in a gallery, its impact is greater among old books and patinated coins and long-handled tools—amid the relics of earlier epochs, in buildings with long and complicated histories, not in the perfect temple of art or the spot-lit white box, or, if outdoors, not on a podium in the town square or on the mechanically sprinkled green carpet spread before the shiny corporate headquarters, but in a landscape changing with the seasons and thus not without evidence of decay.

© N.B. Penny