Sculptor HELAINE BLUMENFELD’s organic forms convey a compelling narrative of renewal, energy and hope
STANDING AT 3M tall on the front lawn of the over-900-year-old Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England, Helaine Blumenfeld’s large bronze sculpture is made of three monumental pieces and evokes three torsos possibly carrying one another.
As it’s often with the sculptor’s very organic works, the three blocks in a lovely green patina could have been configured differently. Here they provide just enough room for the viewer to stand among them and feel embraced by the form.
“This is a complex piece. People have to give something of themselves to it; it doesn’t just speak to them, they have to speak back to the work,” remarks the American, who is regarded as among the most important sculptors of her generation. She is also often described as an heir apparent to Henry Moore, with whom she had a joint exhibition in 1985 in New York.
Blumenfeld says she wanted the work, titled Illusion, to create a sense of foreboding. “If you are inside, you’re feeling contained by it, but it’s not tranquil, it’s not harmonious. It reflects, in a sense, the world we’re living in, which is not quite in harmony, almost in disharmony, and yet it also shows how it could look harmonious and how the pieces can give each other strength.”
The celebrated artist has spent most of her career expressing very personal feelings such as love, hope and despair, but more recently her abstracted forms have been responding to to developments in the wider world. “I’m overwhelmed by the world we live in, by the lack of stability, by the chaos, and complete lack of leadership. We are forgetting we are all human and are all part of something that is more important than differences,” she says, although she insists she’s still an optimist.
Illusion is part of a large-scale exhibition at Ely Cathedral, running until October 28, which brings together 17 bronze and marble sculptures by the artist, including seven new works. These are presented inside and outside the cathedral.
Titled Tree of Life, the exhibition is named after an important series she created, which started in response to a comment from her mother on the “total absence of spirituality” of Holocaust memorials, which she felt had failed to convey the immense loss felt then and for generations to come.
Years later, Blumenfeld created a sculpture that looked like a tree trunk formed by many bodies, twisted and turning, which stretched out into a maze of branches. Tree of Life began with three strands that were sometimes in opposition and other times in conflict, but as they moved upwards somehow merged and opened not into destruction, but into a canopy of hope and beauty.
As Blumenfeld explains, “I was trying to express that, although there had been almost unbelievable destruction, there could still be [positive] renewal and regeneration. This is the message I want people to take away; whatever our differences, we can come together and respect one another’s differences, we can have a world that flourishes.”
Her sculptures have often been described as full of vitality and, quite deliberately, with a sensuality that invites viewers to touch them.
“As children we learn so much by feeling with our hands. There is another dimension to be gained from my work by using your hand over the surface. The slight undulation of a surface could remind someone of a mother’s arms. I believe if you are open to it, sculpture can take you somewhere else within yourself,” she says.
As a child, Blumenfeld had vivid dreams or night visions she never could quite describe, because “putting those into words would have people look at me and say, ‘What?’”. It was her search to express these occurrences that led her to sculpture, after doing a PhD in moral philosophy at Columbia University in New York.
“I first thought it was a matter of language or ideas, so I just kept getting more words, more ideas, more philosophic concepts, but I could still not come close to what I wanted to describe.”
“Then there was a moment with my husband in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, when I came across very small Cycladic heads from 2,500BC. Although each had only one feature, it gave a fantastic idea of what that person was like. I suddenly felt maybe I was looking at the wrong language, it wasn’t words, it was going to be something more visual,” Blumenfeld recalls.
So when her husband got a job in Paris, she decided to follow him there and study sculpture. “Immediately after we got our first bedsit, I got some clay and I was shocked by how I was able to transfer very complex ideas into form,” she says.
Her kitchen-table work was impressive enough for a spot at the École des Beaux-Arts, but she eventually went to the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, Paris, where artists such as Alexander Calder, Joan Miro and Tamara de Lempicka had also studied.
There she became the student of Russian émigré and Cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890– 1967). “Zadkine believed you should carve everything, so I learnt to carve wood when I was visiting him, I learnt to work with clay and he even instructed me to start with some pieces of marble,” she says.
In the mid-1970s, Blumenfeld went to Pietrasanta in Tuscany’s Apuan Alps, whose marble quarries were made famous by Michelangelo. She fell under the spell of the translucent statuary white marble, which she felt helped her best express a spirituality in her work.
By then she and her husband were living in Grantchester, near Cambridge, and she decided to join Sem Ghelardini’s sculpture studio, which was producing works for Henry Moore, César Baldaccini and Barry Flanagan, among others. Blumenfeld started to apprentice with senior artisans here.
“I was very fortunate because in those days you still had artisans who specialised in certain parts, some only did the nose or the hand. There was an artisan in his eighties who only did roses out of marble [using] an ancient technique that the Greeks used when they did pleats on robes. You do this with a very tiny chisel, as if you were a dentist, and make very little holes and then open it up.” says of her work process.
She works with someone who mechanically recreates the model, again in clay, but this time with an armature. “Then I take it back to my own studio and work on it, change it enormously. After that we make it in plaster, which will be given to my marble studio. I’ll go there to choose the marble. I won’t be going to the quarry, but to a yard where I see the block already cut out. I go to the quarry to be romanced by the marble, but I prefer to see the actual block.”
Blumenfeld’s work was initially figure- and gesture-based, but she has abstracted those to convey more intense emotion while retaining the movement and energy. The ambiguity in her works leaves viewers free to interpret these abstractions.
“I like my works to offer different feelings from different perspectives. From one view, you might see harmony, from another an angel or something spiritual, and as you walk around you can absorb and draw in what the sculpture is about.”
That technique has remained with her. “Although I’m not creating flowers, I’m using the same technique. My work is not just one surface, but there is a lot of layering; I go under and create another surface,” she explains.
Learning to master her medium of choice was “very hard work and took a long time”, but she says it was the only way to get any respect in a very male-orientated realm: “You had to show you could work the same hours as the men, that you could learn the métier.”
Today, the sculptor has a studio in Pietrasanta where her marble pieces are produced.
Blumenfeld gets up early in the morning and heads straight to her studio to work on small clay models or maquettes, which are the starting point for her works, to “draw” her night visions in 3D.
“This captures the moment and the idea, then I upscale. I work quite differently from most artists who still work in clay. I have never used an armature, an inner structure. I always work with clay and work until something happens. That means five or six starts that I won’t pursue. When I have something I believe in, a sculpture I want to go forward with, then I start enlarging,” the artist