Menzies Art Brands



When Inge King died on April 23, 2016, she was a hundred years old and was one of Australias most celebrated artists. Unlike many artists who peak early in their careers and spend much of their later life repeating or attempting to resuscitate early triumphs, King with time grew consistently more accomplished, the conceptual framework of her art became progressively more challenging and the technical resolution more sophisticated. She created some of her most memorable sculptures in the final decades of her life.

The monumental polychrome steel sculpture, Shearwater 1994-95, is one of her most important works and was completed when the artist was eighty years old. It is the culmination of decades of experimentation with balance and movement and, in some ways, sums up a lifetime obsession with birds and flight. She and her husband, the distinguished printmaker and painter Grahame King (1915-2008), were keen bird watchers1 and their feathered friends frequently featured in their art. Inge Kings obsession with birds as a subject in her art is evident from her earliest sculptures in Britain from the 1940s, which included Adebar 1947, Crouching Birds (Bird Form) 1948, National Gallery of Australia, and Portrait of a Bird 194), University of Melbourne Art Collection, through to her earliest large-scale work in Australia, Bird Fountain 1957 and subsequent pieces including Blackbird 1978-80 Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Bird Symbol 1986, Firebird 1989-91, Rainbow Bird 1991 and Jungle Bird 1993.2 Late in life, birds formed an important part of some of her final exhibitions.3 Shearwater is the largest of her bird sculptures and the most accomplished.

For Inge King, birds were both animate beings whom she studied in some detail and who possessed distinctive and individual characters as well as allegorical and symbolic creatures who, at different stages in her life, represented freedom, escape from peril and all that was good and precious in nature. In life, Inge King discouraged emphasis on her biography: the fact that she was a survivor of the holocaust in which her sister perished; that she had fled her native Berlin to find refuge in England and Scotland; that she was a European-trained modernist with the experience of New York, who settled with her Australian husband in an artistically provincial Melbourne in 1951; and that she was an early female pioneer in what was essentially a male-dominated art form. She demanded to be judged on her art and her art alone.

When King arrived in Australia, her practice was anchored in international developments in contemporary European and American art, but progressively her voice became distinctly Australian. Her art reflected the land, its delicate ecosystems, its feeling for space, and the saturated light that both bleached and heightened the intensity of colour. She refused to inhabit a closely circumscribed niche, but felt the need to constantly reinvent herself in the morphology of her sculptural forms, the materials that she has employed, and in the broader conceptual context with which she has engaged.

Like most Australian sculptors, she had an extensive private studio practice and participated in many exhibitions. But perhaps more than most of her contemporaries, King has consistently been committed to sculpture as a public art not sculpture as a commemorative memorial, nor sculpture as a private venue for personal gratification in the display of arcane knowledge or esoteric symbols. Without succumbing to the temptation of making popularist sculpture to cater to the lowest common denominator with mimetic copies of commonly recognised icons, Inge King has made popular sculpture, creating new icons with which people have been able to identify and which people could enjoy and use in their daily lives. Shearwater is one such icon.

Her Forward Surge 1974-81 (in St Kilda Road), The Black Sun 1975 in Mildura, The Sun Ribbon 1980-82 (at the University of Melbourne), Sentinel 2000 (in the City of Manningham) overlooking a freeway, as well as the Rings of Saturn 2005-06 (at Heide), are all what could be termed inhabited sculptures in other words, they act as people magnets, drawing people over to interact with them. They do not exist in splendid isolation, but interact with their social and physical environment. Her sculptures have become landmarks within our cities and refuges in the non-urban areas. Shearwater was conceived as a public sculpture designed to live within a public sphere attracting the eye of the passer-by and the resident.

In 1993, Stuart Purves, the national director of the Australian Galleries, entered negotiations with Esso Australia who were building a new headquarters on the Yarra River in Southbank near the Arts Centre precincts where Kings Forward Surge was located. King was invited to make a monumental sculpture for the front of the new building. A working maquette out of composition board was formulated in 19944 and a bronze maquette was cast at about the same time.5 The final polychrome steel sculpture, Shearwater, was fabricated by John Fasham in mild steel measuring 780.0 x 670.0 x 350.0 cm, and installed in 1995.

The bird, the short-tailed Shearwater, more commonly called the mutton bird, is a common Australian native seabird that the Kings knew well from their annual holidays on Phillip Island in Victoria. In the sculpture, King retains a reference to the bird, but interprets it allegorically, with a dominating formal design and an emphasis on lightness and elegance. In her preliminary thoughts about the sculpture, she writes: The sculpture Shearwater was conceived as a focal point for the new Esso building overlooking the Southbank complex. The large bird form spreading its great wings to take off into the skies creates a powerful symbol in the surrounding landscape. The colours red and blue are an important part of the concept. They can be seen from far away across the river, while the overall black stands in contrast to the building. I visualise the sculpture as an environmental work that encourages the spectator to explore it from all angles. My hope is to involve the passer-by and that it may stimulate their imagination to add their own interpretation. A dramatic effect can be achieved by lighting the sculpture at night creating shadows and emphasising its upward surge.6

Although the sculpture weighs about four-and-a-half tonnes, it possesses a deceptive lightness and sleek streamline quality that defies the pull of gravity. Despite the bulk, Shearwater possesses agility and dynamism with flashes of colour contrasting with matt dark surfaces. If the almost four-metre-high polychrome welded steel Jabaroo 1984-85 seemed to have its feet firmly planted on the ground, the almost eight-metre-high Shearwater has definitely taken off and has attained the nobility of flight.
The 1990s was a period of popular success for the artist, when she held ten solo exhibitions an extravagant number for a sculptor plus numerous group exhibitions, including the prestigious Fourth Australian Sculpture Triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1990, Diverse Visions at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1991 and the Joan and Peter Clemenger Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1993 as well as dedicated survey shows of her work at the Bendigo Art Gallery and at the Deakin University Art Gallery.

Shearwater was created at a time when Inge King was working at the peak of her powers and, after struggling for decades with problems of balance and movement, achieved in this work a brilliant and memorable resolution.

1. King, G. and Allen, J., An Australian Bird Watchers Pocket Book, with drawings by Grahame King and verse by Jim Allen, Macmillan Art Publishing, South Yarra, Vic., 2001
2. Grishin, S., The Art of Inge King: Sculptor, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2014
3. For example, Inge King: Birds and Angels, Australian Galleries, Collingwood, Vic., 20 May - 14 June 2003 and Inge King: Birds and Celestial Rings, Australian Galleries, Collingwood, Vic., 9-28 May 2006
4. Shearwater II, 1994, composition board, 100 x 60 x 79cm, Esso Australia headquarters, Southbank, Melbourne, see Jenny Zimmer, Inge King chronology in Sasha Grishin, The Art of Inge King: Sculptor, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2014 p.338 and Judith Trimble, Inge King: Sculptor, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996, p.206
5. Shearwater, maquette I, 1994, bronze with green, blue, gold and red patina on wooden base, 50 x 39 x 28, Artists Estate, see David Hurlston, Inge King Constellation, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 2014, p.83
6. Inge King handwritten statement [1994]                    

Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
Australian National University

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