Elisabeth Frink, ‘Assassins I’, 1963, Piano Nobile

Born in 1930, Frink’s formative years growing up were under the shadow of war. Suffolk was a constant target for aerial bombardment, and she was briefly evacuated to Devon. Film reels of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were defining images of the cruelties humans could inflect on one another. The root causes of the atrocities of warfare, for Frink, could be found in man, and the male form was at the heart of her sculptural practice. She was drawn to the male body and yet repulsed by its capabilities: “I have focused on the male, because to me he is a subtle combination of sensuality and strength with vulnerability”. Giacometti’s war-scarred, brutalised, barely-human bodies were an early artistic influence, and, although somewhat older than her, the so-called ‘Geometry of Fear’ group of British sculptors – Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler, Bernard Meadows, Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage – were contemporaries concerned with the post-war human condition.

Armoured warriors and sentinels, and helmeted heads, populated Frink’s work from the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, but it was the life-size statue of Judas, which was the seminal sculpture of these militarised figures. Frink said of this work “the idea for the figure of Judas had absorbed me for some time as a formal, figurative embodiment of the ideas of betrayal, with its inherent formal problem of how this could be expressed without any obvious histrionics”. For Frink, the two versions of Assassins, were associated with the assassination of President Kennedy, rather than inspired by the killing as has been suggested. Cast mere weeks after JFK’s death, their title seems no coincidence. His death seemed to Frink a symbolic post-war moment, the end of something youthful, idealistic, modern and forward-looking, and the beginning of the Vietnam War era.

In the Sunday Times review of Frink’s 1963 Waddington Galleries show, critic John Russell Taylor wrote of the Assassins “there is a particular, nervous nastiness about Miss Frink’s two groups of killers”. In Assassins I, two figures, with separate legs and two helmeted heads but bodies fused together as one appear as conspirators. The presence of two conjoined figures is highly unusual for Frink, and its significance has been overlooked. She would not cast multiple figures in one piece for another 20 years. Frink modelled her casts with wet plaster of Paris, working quickly around an armature made from metal rods. Chiselling and chipping away dry plaster and adding more as necessary, the process was one of speed and tactility. The rough surface of her early sculptures made them seem war-torn, scarred and pock-marked. In Assassins I, areas of roughness, such as the legs and faces, contrast with the smoothness of armour and helmets, paradoxically tactile and sensual. With prominent helmets that all but obscure their faces, no arms but substantial, armour plated bodies these figures are the archetype of militarised, dehumanised cruelty. There is little suggestion of any flesh beneath: Frink’s male form has metamorphosed into menacing soldier, pure aggression, pure violence. The Judas of the same year was the first of Frink’s figures to wear a goggles prefiguring Frink’s iconic, totemic goggled heads; again, Frink has stated there was never a suggestion of eyes beneath the goggles.

1963 was a monumental year for Frink. In the previous year, she had an exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester with Vanessa Bell and John Golding, and in 1963 she participated in a group exhibition in Battersea Park and a solo show at the Waddington Galleries. A Soldier was purchased by the Arts Council, and Harbinger Bird IV was purchased by the Tate. She also received a commission for the Ulster Bank in Belfast.

This cast of Assassins I was on long-term loan to the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, and other casts were purchased by the Arts Council and by Balliol College, Oxford.

Signature: Signed and numbered 'Frink 7/7' on base

Waddington Gallery, London, 1972.
Royal Academy of Arts, London, 'Elisabeth Frink: Sculpture and Drawings 1952-1984', 1985.
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, on loan.
Other casts:
Arts Council
Balliol College, Oxford

E. Mullins (intro.), The Art of Elisabeth Frink, London, 1972, p. 49, another cast illustrated.
B. Robertson, Elisabeth Frink Sculpture, Salisbury, 1984, pp. 158-59, no. 194, another cast illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Elisabeth Frink Sculpture and Drawing 1952-1984, London, Royal Academy, 1985, p. 16, another cast illustrated.
A. Ratuszniak (ed.), Elisabeth Frink: Catalogue Raisonne of Sculpture 1947-1993, Surrey, 2013, cat. no. FCR128, col. ill. p. 90.

Tib Lane Gallery, Manchester
Where purchased by Lawrence Ives, thence by descent
Private Collection, UK

About Elisabeth Frink