images courtesy of the artist's estate
Sculptor behind the first BAFTA mask was ahead of her time
Exhibition celebrating major contribution to public art in post-war Britain by American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe opens at the University of Leeds on 30 March
She created the famous BAFTA mask trophy that has been awarded to the great and the good of the film and TV worlds for more than 60 years. But some say the work of sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe has been overlooked ever since.
Now the University of Leeds hopes to redress this by collaborating with the American artist’s daughter to create a new exhibition of her work from 30 March to 2 July: Sculptor behind the Mask: Mitzi Cunliffe’s work of the 1950s.
Painter and Royal Academician Stephen Farthing curated an exhibition of Cunliffe’s work in Oxford in 1994. He said Cunliffe, who lived in the North of England for much of the 1950s and 60s, was well ahead of her time.
“Mitzi Cunliffe wasn’t fortunate enough to live at a time when the art world was interested in a female American artist making sculpture in a garage in Didsbury, let alone the very real or possibly just imagined performative element in her work,” he said.
“Today, in my story of art, she would hang in the same gallery as Lady Gaga, Marina Abramovich, Jackson Pollock and possibly Barbara Hepworth. It was her ability to take a classical education and make it look towards the future that convinced me she should be part of the curriculum.”
Cunliffe’s elder daughter Antonia Cunliffe Davis has been working to raise awareness of her late mother’s artistic legacy for more than 20 years.
She said: “After all this time, I hope this mission will finally come to fruition and that the exhibition at Leeds will help get her the recognition she deserves.”
This year the University celebrates the 60th anniversary of one of Cunliffe’s most important 1950s public sculptures –Man-Made Fibres, a huge Portland stone sculpture for a new textiles building, also called Man-Made Fibres. The sculpture features two monumental hands with a striking weave motif cradled between them, reflecting the exciting developments in synthetic fibres that the new building represented. The University remains proud of its roots in Yorkshire’s textiles industry.
At the same time she was working on this, Cunliffe was commissioned by the then Guild of Television Producers to design the BAFTA award, which was presented for the first time in October 1955. Man-Made Fibres was unveiled by the Princess Royal – then Chancellor of the University – in June the following year.
The new exhibition, at the University’s Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, considers Cunliffe’s career in public art and as a designer of ceramics and textiles in the 1950s, when she created the famous BAFTA trophy – on loan will be the very first iconic mask produced.
The show has been curated by art historian Professor Ann Sumner, the University’s Head of Cultural Engagement, who said: “The exhibition concentrates on Mitzi Cunliffe’s major public art commissions, including her little-known contribution to the Festival of Britain, which launched her career in this country, as well as commissions for other Universities such as Liverpool, for schools in Manchester, her frieze for the Heaton Park Pumping Station, also in Manchester, and the remarkable War of the Roses screen in Lewis’s department store in Liverpool.
“The 1950s were an extraordinarily prolific years for her.”
The Leeds exhibition will focus on the Man-Made Fibres sculpture, culminating in the 60th anniversary of the building on which it sits, on 29 June.
Items on display – some for the first time – will include Cunliffe’s original maquettes (preliminary models), photographs, letters, drawings, textiles, ceramics and exhibition catalogues.
Arthritis and eye problems led Cunliffe to switch to teaching and writing from the early 1970s. She later developed Alzheimer’s disease and retired to Oxfordshire where she died aged 88 in 2006.
As part of the year’s events to celebrate Cunliffe’s association with the University, Man-Made Fibres is being conserved, and new public art will be commissioned in response to it.
The exhibition forms part of the University of Leeds Public Art Project and will be accompanied by a series of events and talks, as part of The Yorkshire Year of the Textile celebrations. It also coincides with the Out There: Our Post-War Public Art exhibition organised by Historic England at Somerset House (until 10 April).
The American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe (1918-2006) arrived in Britain in 1949. Today she is best-known for her design of the BAFTA mask award trophy, but she was also renowned in the 1950s for her contribution to public art, as a designer of textiles, ceramics and glass, and a commentator on the relationship of architecture and sculpture.
“Sculpture must again be made accessible,” she wrote in 1950. “Sculpture withers now in the hothouse of galleries and museums for temporary exhibits, catering to a faceless feeble audience of dilettantes and critics.” She wanted to see sculpture “taken for granted by people as part of the natural environment, the stuff of life”, to be “used, rained on, leaned against”.
The Man-Made Fibres building is now known as Clothworkers’ Building South – the latter name itself an important nod to the University of Leeds’ foundations in the textiles industry. One of the institutions on which it was founded, The Yorkshire College of Science, was established in the 1870s, largely as a result of concerns by the wool and textile industries that the rapid development of new technologies in Europe posed a threat to the local trade.
Mitzi Cunliffe was born in New York in 1918, the daughter of a glass manufacturer. She attended the Art Students League of New York before studying Fine Art at Columbia University from 1935 to 1940. She then sought inspiration in Paris, studying at the Académie Colarossi for a year, and in Sweden. Back in her native New York, she had solo shows in 1944 and 1948, and produced Grief Piece as part of Erich Mendelsohn’s unrealised design for a Holocaust memorial in Riverside Park (1946-47); for this she was the only woman artist to contribute. She exhibited at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts in 1945, received an Honorable Mention from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1947 and exhibited at the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis, establishing a reputation for herself.
In 1949 she came to England after meeting and marrying the British academic Marcus Cunliffe, who taught American history at the University of Manchester. The glamorous young couple settled in Didsbury, and Mitzi quickly asserted herself as a sculptor converting their garage into a studio.
Festival of Britain
She was one of six women sculptors participating in the Festival of Britain in 1951, where her major piece was the impressive Root Bodied Forth, an 8ft concrete group sited prominently on the viewing platform of the station entrance to the exhibition. She also designed a pair of handles, Push and Pull for the Regatta Restaurant at the Festival on the South Bank. The original maquette for Root Bodied Forth will be on loan to The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery from Leeds Museums & Galleries and the original Push and Pull handles from a private collection. Both of these were included in her first exhibition in London at the Hanover Gallery later that year. The catalogue included an introduction by Sir Hugh Casson, the Festival’s Director of Architecture:
“Her strong decorative sense, her power to express intense emotion, her enthusiastic imaginative approach to any project, whether it be a marble carving for a civic institution or a plan for handles for a café door, are a welcome reminder that sculpture need not necessarily be as it is so often today a monologue, but that it can be, as it once was, a well-understood dialogue between the artist and the community.”
Commissions flowed in following her success at the Festival and with her first London exhibition, including works for the University of Liverpool, local schools and Manchester Corporation Waterworks. Meanwhile she still completing works for New York clients.