Bernard Meadows, Augustus

Bernard Meadows, Augustus, circa 1962. Bronze, 64-3/4 × 39-1/2 × 22-1/2 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Genia and Charles Zadok, 1988 (1988.120). Photo by Ben Aqua.

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Valerie Fletcher: Bernard Meadows is a British sculptor. He was profoundly affected by his experiences in World War II and before that. During the Great Depression, his working-class family did not have the wherewithal to allow him to stay in school. He did not even finish high school, but he did manage to study art while working at various jobs.

During the war, he belonged to the British Royal Air Force and was sent off to serve in South and Southeast Asia. He did not see action so much as the dreary, slogging effort that became necessary to supply and support the troops. When he returned to England, there were few jobs, few opportunities for art in the first years. And then in the 50s, he started working primarily as a sculptor of bizarre animals – animals that had a kind of expressive power.

Finally in 1960, when he turned 45 years old, he decided to take a new direction and he began making figure sculptures. The sculpture here is a work called Augustus from 1963. This piece, although a little bit perplexing at first, is actually a reference to a famous sculpture of Ancient Rome. And that is a standing figure of the Emperor Augustus who is considered one of the greatest emperors of the entire history of Rome. And that sculpture was of the triumphant emperor in ceremonial armor striding forward with one arm raised and a crown of laurel leaves symbolizing victory on his head.

Meadows, however, depicted him as a stunted, shell-like, encased creature of some sort, presumably human with two legs and a torso, but encased in a kind of armor and not even a classical or even modern military armor, but more like that of a crustacean, like a horseshoe crab or some other ancient slightly creepy creature. And when you look at this, the armor too has been chipped. It’s been cracked with these crevices. So it is an image of what was once perhaps a great noble subject that has become attacked, deteriorated, and diminished through the sufferings of living through modern times.

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Bernard Meadows, Augustus, circa 1962.

British, 1915-2005

At age sixteen, Bernard Meadows quit school and worked to earn money to study painting at the local art school. He then apprenticed under the sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986), from whom he learned about direct carving, the biomorphic forms of surrealism, and, perhaps most important, the benefits of preliminary drawing to reconcile sculptural ideas.  

Early in his career, Meadows mainly sculpted abstract animal motifs as symbols of the human condition. In 1960, when he turned forty-five, he was inspired by a visit to Florence, Italy, where he saw Roman and Renaissance sculptures of emperors and generals in classical armor. For the next five years, Meadows concentrated on a series of twenty sculptures of human figures clad in armor. In his words, these “figures are armored, aggressive, protected, but inside the safety of the shell they are completely soft and vulnerable.”

Augustus refers to the powerful Roman emperor, who ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE. Under his leadership the empire expanded and solidified its military and political domains in southwestern and southeastern Europe, northern Africa, and the Near East. Significantly, the empire began to enjoy a new era of internal peace known as the Pax Romana. Meadows’s Augustus confronts viewers with its physical bulk, but the impression is not that of a triumphant ruler. The armor covering the massive torso is cut by deep crevices, and some areas have rough edges, implying that the emperor and his empire have suffered hardships. The once-powerful arms have withered to useless appendages. Like many men of his generation, Meadows was profoundly affected by the Great Depression of his early childhood as well as his later service in World War II. Augustus suggests that in the modern era, earlier concepts of class structure and imperial rule no longer survive except in damaged form.

Bernard Meadows, Augustus, circa 1962. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Bernard Meadows, Augustus, circa 1962. Photo by Ben Aqua.

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