Rising three metres from the front lawn of the medieval Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England, three monumental pieces of patinated bronze bend and twist as if to suggest flowing water, rustling leaves, embracing torsos or simply organic abstract forms.
“This is a complex piece. People have to give something of themselves to it; it doesn’t just speak to them, they have to speak back to the work,” says its creator, Helaine Blumenfeld, who was born in New York and is now based in the village of Grantchester outside Cambridge.
Blumenfeld wanted the work, Illusion, to create a sense of foreboding. “If you’re inside, you’re feeling contained by it, but it’s not tranquil, it’s not harmonious,” she says. “It reflects, in a sense, the world we’re living in, which is not quite in harmony, almost in disharmony, and yet it also shows how it could look harmonious and how the pieces can give each other strength.”
Illusion is part of a large-scale exhibition at the cathedral that runs until October 28 and showcases 17 bronze and marble sculptures, including seven new works.
Titled Tree of Life, the exhibition is named after an important series Blumenfeld created in response to a comment from her mother on the “total absence of spirituality” of Holocaust memorials, which she thought failed to convey the immense loss felt then and for generations to come.
Years later, Blumenfeld created a sculpture that looked like a tree trunk formed of bodies, twisted and turning, and stretching out into a canopy of branches. Tree of Life began with three strands that were sometimes in opposition and other times in conflict, but as they moved upwards somehow merged and opened not into destruction, but into a canopy of hope and beauty.
“I was trying to express that, although there had been almost unbelievable destruction, there could still be renewal and regeneration,” Blumenfeld explains. “This is the message I want people to take away; whatever our differences, we can come together and respect one another’s differences, we can have a world that flourishes.”
Blumenfeld, considered one of the most important sculptors of her generation, is often described as the heir apparent to Henry Moore, the English artist known for large-scale sculptures evoking the human body. Her sculptures are seen as full of vitality and, quite deliberately, as possessing a sensuality that invites viewers to touch them. “As children we learn so much by feeling with our hands. There is another dimension to be gained from my work by using your hand over the surface,” she says. “The slight undulation of a surface could remind someone of a mother’s arms. I believe if you are open to it, sculpture can take you somewhere else within yourself.”
As a child, Blumenfeld had vivid dreams or night visions she never could quite describe, because “putting those into words would have people look at me and say, ‘What?’” It was her search to express these occurrences that led her to sculpture, after earning a PhD in moral philosophy at New York’s Columbia University.
“There was a moment with my husband in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, when I came across very small Cycladic heads from 2,500 BC,” Blumenfeld recalls of the antiquities that have been traced back to inhabitants of the Aegean Sea islands during the Early Bronze Age. “Although each had only one feature, it gave a fantastic idea of what that person was like. I suddenly had a feeling maybe I was looking at the wrong language. It wasn’t words, it was going to be something more visual.”
When her husband got a job in Paris, Blumenfeld went with him and began to study sculpture. “Immediately after we got our first bedsit, I got some clay and I was shocked by how I was able to transfer very complex ideas into form.”
In the mid-1970s, Blumenfeld went to Pietrasanta in Tuscany’s Apuan Alps, whose marble quarries were made famous by Michelangelo. She fell under the spell of the translucent statuary white marble, which she felt helped her best express a spirituality in her work.
Learning to master her medium of choice was “very hard work and took a long time”, but she says it was the only way to get any respect in a very male-orientated realm: “You had to show you could work the same hours as the men, that you could learn the métier.”
Today, Blumenfeld has a studio in Pietrasanta where all her marble sculptures are produced. She gets up early and heads straight to her home studio to work on small clay models or maquettes, which are the starting point for her sculptures, to “draw” her night visions in 3D.
“This captures the moment and the idea, then I upscale. I work quite differently from most artists who still work in clay. I have never used an armature, an inner structure. I always work with clay and work until something happens. That means five or six starts that I won’t pursue. When I have something I believe in, a sculpture I want to go forward with, then I start enlarging,” the artist says of her work process.
Blumenfeld has spent most of her career expressing very personal feelings such as love, hope and despair, but more recently her abstracted forms have taken shape in response to global issues. “I’m overwhelmed by the world we live in, by the lack of stability, by the chaos, and complete lack of leadership,” she says. “We are forgetting we are all human and are all part of something that is more important than differences.”
While her work speaks to a variety of themes, Blumenfeld sculpts in such a way that viewers are left free to interpret the abstractions.
“I like my works to offer different feelings from different perspectives,” she says. “From one view, you might see harmony, from another an angel or something spiritual, and as you walk around you can absorb and draw in what the sculpture is about.”