Last Saturday, in unexpected sunshine, Lismore Castle Arts, in Ireland, opened its annual summer international exhibition. Dotted around the beautiful formal gardens and displayed in the galleries, until 30 September, are large-scale sculptures by Swiss sculptor Hans Josephsohn. Reclining figures, totemic heads, a Christ-like head and torso twisting out from a wall-based relief, these sculptures recall the reclining figures on top of Etruscan sarcophagi, the Moai heads of Easter Island and soulful Romanesque saints. Yet although they hark back to sculpture’s archaic past, these sculptures, as you look at them, are also determinedly alive, as if they had been made of flesh and cast just before they had come fully into being.
Installation View, Josephsohn at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland, 12 May – 30 September
They express too a very contemporary struggle with the whole business of making art. Imagine a Frank Auerbach portrait in 3-D and you may get some of the sensation: these are not smooth Henry Moores. But nor are they nervous Giacomettis, paring away matter. Constructed from plaster (his chief assistant tells me: ‘He is not only a sculptor who cuts away, he is a plastician who adds. He works in both directions’), the sculptures are cast in brass when Josephsohn judges them finished and left with a rough, stone-like, patinated surface that light dances on. You have to be in front of them to experience this liveliness. The show has been curated by Iwan Wirth, Josephsohn’s dealer, at the invitation of Lord Burlington, who established Lismore Castle Arts in a formerly derelict part of his family’s ancestral castle, eight years ago.
Installation View, Josephsohn at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland, 12 May – 30 September. Josephsohn, now 92, is little known outside Switzerland, despite being considered a seminal figure by other artists. Gerhard Mack, a Swiss art critic, and author of the definitive monograph on the artist, explained that Josephsohn, originally from Königsburg (Kaliningrad), of Jewish parentage, fled the Nazi regime via Italy, to Switzerland in 1938. ‘He started out studying with Zurich sculptor Otto Müller, working in a neoclassical way. Josephsohn took up neoclassical realism and transformed it. Around him in Switzerland, you had constructivist art, like Max Bill, they were starting abstract sculpture, and he never lost track. He said, “The main task of sculpture is to give an image of the human being, valid for its own time,” and he did that for seventy years.’
The curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, like Iwan Wirth, was introduced to Josephsohn by Swiss artist duo David Weiss and Peter Fischli, and has interviewed him. As Obrist, who spoke at a conference on Josephsohn for the Lismore show’s opening, commented ‘what is heroic about Josephsohn is that until his stroke four years ago, for fifty years he maintained the daily rhythm of making sculpture; he worked every day from nine, wearing his overalls. He would say that, in some kind of weird way, going into the studio was “renouncing on life,” just as Giacometti had to darken the windows of his studio.’ He also reminded us that Josephsohn had often worked with architects to create the ideal setting for his pieces: ‘He never wanted his work in an open field. He was always interested in sculpture having a dialogue with architecture.’ At Lismore, even the pieces outside have been carefully aligned with the architectural features of both castle and gardens to maintain this connection.
Installation View, Josephsohn at Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland, 12 May – 30 September.
I ran into Clare Lilley, Head Curator at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, who is a great admirer: ‘What really strikes me about the works is that they are incredibly sensual but also that they have this forceful chthonic energy, that comes from the centre of the earth.’ Trying to explain why he is not better known in England, she commented, ‘He is very much an artists’ artist.’ Indeed, prominent younger artists such as Matthew Day Jackson, Rashid Johnson and Thomas Houseago came to Lismore to discuss Josephson’s influence on their work. It is perhaps Houseago, whose vast messy plaster sculptures come out of a similar highly physical, hands-on, studio practice, who was most eloquent about the impulse to make sculpture: ‘In the act of making, you don’t just use your eyes, you use your body, and your body has memories. And you do have to renounce the world and the present to reach those memories. You are forced by sculpture into a relationship with deep history and deep memory.’
In the ancient setting of Lismore Castle, where some of the walls date back to the twelfth century, Josephsohn’s work, more usually encountered in urban, contemporary spaces, has found an unexpectedly forceful and sympathetic context. Whether in the austere simplicity of the white upstairs gallery, with its eighteenth-century rafters, or in the lush setting of the lower gardens, where three recent reclining figures offer us a déjeuner sur l’herbe for our time, these works of Josephsohn offer visitors a live connection to sculpture’s most fundamental purposes and pleasures. "