The original maquette of The Unknown Political Prisoner (1952-53) by Reg Butler will be offered for sale in the LAMA March 6, 2011 Modern Art & Design Auction.
Here is a special preview of Peter Loughrey’s essay, which accompanies this lot in the March 6th auction catalogue:
Late last year I went to a house in the hills above Malibu to look at furniture to possibly include in this auction. As the front door opened, I was exposed to a dramatic view of the Malibu coastline framed in floor-to-ceiling glass walls. It was the sort of architectural moment that real estate agents like to call “explosive”. However, I could hardly notice the view because of a small wire sculpture on a pedestal in the foreground.
Many years ago, I was assigned a paper to write on the subject of propaganda in modern art. I chose this very sculpture to illustrate a point that in the middle part of the 20th century, artists were using abstraction counter-intuitively to humanize their subjects.
Reg Butler’s “Maquette for the Unknown Political Prisoner” was chosen as the grand-prize winning entrant in a competition of the same name in 1952 that included entries from 3,500 artists. Other notable entrants were Calder, Hepworth, Chadwick, and Roszak, to name just a few of the internationally known sculptors. The artists were asked to “pay tribute to those individuals who, in many countries and in diverse political situations, had dared to offer their liberty and their lives for the cause of human freedom.”
Butler’s earlier studies for this work show a somewhat more obvious message of pain and struggle by impaling a human figure on the main vertical spire. But it was his final maquette, which captured the essence of the message through abstraction that impressed judges Roland Penrose, Alfred H. Barr, and Sir Herbert Read.
The work resembles a large radar tower and at over 300 feet high, it would certainly have cut an imposing outline on the border of West and East Berlin, its desired location for construction. The figures below the structures (known as “watchers”) were to have been created much larger than life-size and captured not only the message of humanity looking out for examples of human rights violations, but also, with their heads looking upward, subconsciously reinforced growing fears and concerns surrounding the “red scare” and even UFO’s.
This little maquette received extraordinary attention at the time, even appearing in Life magazine. Unfortunately the symbolism and implied scale were ignored by many art critics of the day; some of who felt the works on exhibit were “too abstract (and therefore ‘inhuman’)”. When the exhibition of the winning entries were exhibited at the Tate Collection in London, a Hungarian refugee, echoing some of these opinions in the press, smashed the maquette in protest declaring the reduction of human suffering to “scrap metal” was “an absolute lack of humanism”.
Butler quickly built a replica (now in the permanent collection at MoMA) to be on view until the end of the exhibition and carefully restored the original, which was eventually presented to the competition’s organizing director Anthony Kloman.
A full-scale model was never realized, but a larger replica was created a few years later and was subsequently acquired along with studies and drawings by the Tate Gallery in London. Kloman sold the original maquette at Sotheby’s London salesroom in 1963, where it was acquired by an American private collector. It has been enjoying an “explosive” view of the Malibu coastline ever since.
The Unknown Political Prisoner maquette
Wire and metal on a cast plaster base
17.5”h x 6.75” x 7.5”
“International Sculpture Competition: The Unknown Political Prisoner”, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, March 14-15, 1953, held at the Tate Gallery.
Joint property of the ICA, London and Academy of Fine Art, Berlin;
Anthony Kloman, Newport, Rhode Island;
Private Collection, Malibu, California (purchased at Sotheby’s London, December 1963 from the A J T Kloman private collection)
Art Aujourd’hui, No 5, July 1953, pg 6-11;
Masters of Modern Art, Alfred H Barr Jr, New York, 1954, pg 159
New Images of Man, Peter Selz, New York, 1959, pg 42
Motif 6, Spring 1961, pg 31
Sotheby & Co (Catalogue of Modern Drawings Paintings and Sculpture), December 4, 1963, pg 46
Ivory Hammer 2: The Year at Sotheby’s, Davis, et al, 1964, pg 77