FE McWilliam

Banbridge-born sculptor with 'unique vision'

FE McWilliam’s lissom-limbed surrealist sculptures have gained him international cachet. His work can be viewed at the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and - unlike many of Ulster’s contemporary artists – the hip, revolutionary tenets of continental modernism did not pass him by.

Riann Coulter, curator of the FE McWilliam Gallery in the artists’s hometown of Banbridge, describes him as one of the most important sculptors to have worked in Britain or Ireland during the twentieth century.

'His unique vision resulted in some of the most memorable figurative sculpture of the Modern movement,' she said. 'FE McWilliam combined craftsmanship and technical experimentation with humour and inventiveness to produce a diverse body of work.'

While for many years his importance to the canon of Northern Irish art was overlooked, this was in part rectified by the opening of the FE McWilliam gallery last September, a space dedicated to his sculptural exuberance.

'The gallery has definitely resulted in a new appreciation of his work,' said Riann. 'Over 40, 000 people have visited the gallery since it opened in September 2008 and we look forward to introducing new audiences to McWilliam’s work.'

Born in Banbridge in 1909, Frederick Edward McWilliam was educated at Belfast’s Campbell College and went on to study at the Slade School of Art in London.

Determined to become part of the international art scene, he honed his technique in both London and Paris during the 1930s, absorbing modernism’s preferences for anarchic abstraction and oneiric illogic. His style took much from Branusci, Giacometti and Rodin, who broke with the strictures of classical sculpture to produce fragmented or attenuated forms in bronze and metal.

He was also a devotee of Picasso, Dali and Braque, and developed a quixotic, whimsical approach to the sculptured form.

As Belfast-based artist Andrew Haslett described, McWilliam matters because surrealism has had limited representation in Northern Irish art.

'The classical proportions of traditional sculpture are compelling, but for McWilliam it was all about more fantastical, spindled figures. He sampled the whole smorgasbord of sculptural styles. His work is a breath of fresh air.'

McWilliam’s sculptures typically involve lithe, elongated figures seemingly on the verge of movement or globular cross-sections of human body parts stretched or reduced.

Elsewhere, we see sleek woodcarvings of female profiles, lovers cast in textured bronze or metal and weird angular shapes akin to mechanical structures.

His sculpture is perhaps too varied and playful to be restricted by the visual vocabulary of any one art movement but he is loosely, if not consistently, surrealist.

The Ulster artist exhibited with the British Surrealists in 1938 and the dreamlike, supra-rational thematics of Dali – who launched the exhibition with a lecture delivered while wearing a deep-sea diving suit – are apparent throughout his oeuvre.

'Eye, Nose and Cheek' (1939) along with the stone carvings of 1938–9 are important surrealist contributions, strangely distorting the human form into bizarre, biomorphic configurations. The ‘Bean’ sculptures of 1965–6, with their swelling forms, satirize sexuality - this was an artist with a keen sense of humour.

This humorous reverence for subconscious logic and absurd shapes gives us the fluid 'Lady into Fish' (1977) and 'Umbilicus' (1978). These are extraordinary feats of sculptural communication, with the female legs in each figure acquiring a plastic extrapolation somewhere between the comedic and the profound.

'Lady into Fish' defamiliarises the female body so that it becomes a liquid abstraction: if you squint at it long enough you begin to see the legs and raised arms of the figure forming the outline of a fish. This is pure surrealism. A recognisable form suddenly frustrates rational classification, becoming amorphous and unsettling – in this case part woman and part fish.

'Umbilicus' does something similar. The lower section of the female torso and crossed legs replicate a kind of trapezium shape – the human body remapped according to skewed geometry. Like the iconic 'Legs Static', the limbs are isolated and made a shibboleth for the whole human frame - a technique first pioneered by Rodin.

Where once we had coherence, loyalty to representational forms, strict realism and faith in an established order, modernism celebrates chaos, abstraction and the destabilisation of certainties.

McWilliam was very much internationalist in style and was to spend most of his life in England, but he remained emotionally engaged with Ulster. 'Although he had made London his home, Northern Ireland was never far from his thoughts,' said Dr Denise Ferran, currently working on a definitive book about the sculptor.

'The bombing of the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast in 1971 would become the subject of his Women of Belfast series, and the incident made a lasting impression on him. There is great pathos in these sculptures.'

The 'Women of Belfast' (1972) series – some of which can be viewed at the Banbridge gallery - documents the violent outbreak of the Troubles with jagged, roughly textured bronze sculptures. Here women are caught in dishevelment: flung by the force of a bomb blast, their legs flail and their faces bear the imprint of screams of protest.

The artist’s use of figures hewn to the width of a knife edge both here and in the seminal 'Cain and Abel' (1952), again recalls the work of Giacometti, whose pin-thin, elongated forms suggested melancholy in their brutal parity.

With Europe’s leading surrealist sculptors, FE McWilliam shared a commitment to imaginative vision and crucially, to incorporation of an emotional response to the subject. The 'Women of Belfast' series captures the first rumblings of sectarian violence and McWilliam’s sense of despair. The intensely wrought, frozen grimaces of his Belfast women are a barometer of the artist’s reciprocal horror.

Joanne Savage

Click here to take a video podcast tour of the FE McWilliam gallery.

The FE McWilliam Gallery is located on 200 Newry Road, Banbridge. Click here to check out Culture Live! listings for the gallery.