Leon Underwood:
Figure and Rhythm @ Pallant House Gallery
7 March – 14 June 2015

Nucleus (1923)Untitled (Foetus), (c.1924-1925)Family (The Childhood of a Planet)(1936)

Atalanta-Shiva (1938)Rebel Spirit (Adventurer) 1933Forty Thousand Years (c.1960)

In preferring Leon, the more unusual, of his three given names – George Claude Leon – there is a hint of the independent pioneer within this twentieth-century artist.1

As an art teacher, draughtsman, painter, printmaker and sculptor Underwood repeatedly reinvented his style to explore the use of materials and develop original visual themes.

Manifest in chalk, terracotta, wood and bronze, Underwood’s interpretations of figurative sculptures exceed the repertoire of his less well-travelled peers. Distilling Russian, Icelandic, American, Mexican and African cultures, into a canon of diverse and unexpected works. Yet it is the simplicity of Underwood’s direct connection to our emotional resonance that draws attention.

This exhibition is meticulously curated to chronicle Underwood’s aesthetic progress through the early twentieth-century influences of Cubism, Surrealism, Abstraction and primitive art, blended with the revolutionary musical beat of the Jazz Age.

Within his sculptures elements of these stylistic genres evolve, exemplified by: the compressed angular face of Nucleus (c.1923), the tactile pebble form of Untitled (Foetus) (c.1924-1925), effervescent bubbles expelled from the mouth of the diving Rebel Spirit (Adventurer) (1933) and the innocent child of Family (The Childhood of a Planet) (1936). While the captivating duality of face and figure found in Atalanta-Shiva (1938) convey rhythmic motion.

Underwood’s specific interest in African art centred on his belief that the art of a nation embodies the essence of its cultural identity and must be preserved – a conviction that he sought to promote with his series of deity masks. Later, in contrast, the stillness of the Giacometti-inspired Forty Thousand Years (c.1960) offered a witty acknowledgement of sculpture’s heritage in deference to the replica rotund Venus of Willendorf held aloft.2

Evidence that Underwood’s talent was recognised during his lifetime can be found in the exhibit of Mindslave: The Mind in Abject Subordination to the Intellect (1934) currently to be found in a wall niche at the end of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Sculpture Gallery.3 Though, as the century progressed, the trend towards the increasingly monumental scale of landscape sculpture saw his work obscured by that of his ambitious students, including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Underwood’s sculptures are shrewd observations of humanity. They are smaller, more intimate, recognisable in form and liberal in expression; each work capturing his relentless anthropomorphic curiosity. Rediscovered, Underwood’s artistic mastery has provided a sophisticated legacy of syncopated sculptures.

  1. George Claude Leon Underwood 1890-1975.
  2. The original Venus of Willendorf (Oolitic limestone, 11.1 cm) found in Austria in 1908, was believed to be 40,000 years old, however it has since been dated between 28,000 – 25,000 BCE.
  3. Mindslave: The Mind in Abject Subordination to the Intellect (1934) was exhibited at the Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture in Battersea Park in 1948.

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