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March 17, 2013 10:32 pm
This is the first UK museum retrospective of the German-Swiss sculptor who died last summer, aged 92, just as he was beginning to enjoy acclaim after decades of obscurity. Even as they dominate the space around them, there remains something reclusive about every one of Josephsohn’s bulky, crusty reclining nudes and “semi-figures”, their layered, sensitively manipulated, ambiguous abstract/figurative
surfaces – built up in plaster and lost-wax bronze casting – at once restrained, rigorous, simplified, but tactile and exuberant.
Josephsohn’s ability to make indefiniteness monumental is what is so arresting to 21st-century audiences. If his untitled figures have faces, they are heavy yet delicately hewn, each subtly different from the next, though all appear unknowable, fleeting and at the same time static, authoritative as ancient totems. Josephsohn used models – from his wife to a passing porter at a nearby hospital who posed during his lunch break – but moved as far from realism as figurative sculpture can go.
A significant showing of his work alongside Giacometti’s at last autumn’s Venice Architecture biennale emphasised Josephsohn’s place in the European existentialist tradition. His fragmentary figures suggest fattened-up Giacomettis: human identity is fragile and uncertain for both artists. Admitting the influence, Josephsohn explained that with Giacometti, “if you take anything away . . . nothing at all remains. The figure consists solely of relationships. It’s the same with me. You can remove a piece and nothing is left. What that means for our times I don’t know.”
Recalling Venice’s Arsenale, Oxford’s top-lit, long, high galleries, with their rough brickwork, also display the columnar, even classical, nature of Josephsohn’s figures to fine effect; the artist always insisted on architectural settings, offsetting perhaps the intense interiority of his creations. “I have simply followed my imagination,” he said. “All the crises, the human ones that occur in life, and all the possible adventures and all the paths through the woods where you don’t know how you will get out again, they have all taken place in my studio.”
www.modernartoxford.org.uk, runs to April 14
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