London

Michael Sandle

Fischer Fine Art

Though a selection of bronzes and a gallery of watercolors is a modest enough offering from Michael Sandle, a man sometimes regarded as the most ambitious British sculptor of his generation, it nevertheless provides a progress report on his activities during a voluntary exile which has already lasted ten years. In the 60s, A. Alvarez’s essay on the “gentility principle” in English poetry was hotly debated. We could never produce a John Berryman or a Robert Lowell, he argued, because good manners got in the way. Perhaps the same was true of sculpture; New Generation politesse proved no defense against American Minimalism. Reacting against “gentility,” Sandle fled, first to Canada, then to Germany, where he has remained a provocative outsider. His move to Germany and his involvement in the intellectual debates of German cultural history is not accidental; the extremities of 19th century Romanticism and their 20th century progeny offer material of particular interest to Sandle.

The exact nature of his provocation becomes apparent only gradually. Drawings return compulsively to images of machine-gun parts, corpses and skeletons, planes and hangars, while a set of bronze maquettes adopt the stepped structure of tombs or monuments, combining this with imagery of beds, boats, rafts, pyres, and gondolas. Some of the titles are in German—Reise in die Ewigkeit (Journey into Eternity), Abgeschossener Flieger (Airman Shot Down)—and the Second World War underlies much of the content. At a time when neo-Nazism is reviving in Britain and Germany alike, Bunker in Moonlight, Untergang des dritten Reiches (Fall of the Third Reich), and Eva’s Hat seem pernicious in their sentimentality; yet the case is not as open-and-shut as this. Alongside these pieces are Disneyesque mouse heads in bronze, goggled and studded. One of them, Der Minister für Propaganda, lies on the floor in front of an array of microphones.

William Blake said that it was better to murder a baby in its cradle than to stifle an emotion; one man who would have agreed was Gesualdo, the 16th-century Neapolitan composer and prince who rocked one of his children to death in a fit of jealousy (supposing it to have been fathered by another man), and who then killed his wife and her lover. Sandle’s Monumentum Pro Gesualdo, 1967–69, is a response to the music alone, an extravagant tribute to pathological mannerism. It is a short step from this celebration of the beauty produced by a demented genius to a meditation on political megalomania. In context, Sandle’s design for a monument to the burned corpse of Hitler—a mound of garbage, a helmet, and a gasoline can—is defensible and relevant. Based on a reading of Erwin Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture, it commemorates not a person but a place, a time, and a need. Ironically, its design is copied from a propaganda photograph, faked, perhaps, by the Allies to provide evidence they wanted. It reminds us that the need for heroes’ graves is related to the need for heroes themselves.

Thinking about Sandle always leads back to that tension between subjectivity and anonymity that has drawn him toward other, almost unworkable, dichotomies—between individual history and collective destiny, intellectual decision and unreasonable compulsion. No matter how he may bury it, a Romantic desire for release may return him to the subject of fascism, to irresistible wartime memories. Working in a realm where Claes Oldenberg meets Albert Speer, in his self-elected role as the conscience of Europe he may end by announcing truths about the collective unconscious—but at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and for the wrong reasons.

Stuart Morgan