Essay by Valerie Fletcher
Like so many of his generation, Bernard Meadows was profoundly affected by growing up during the Great Depression and serving in World War II. Born into a working-class family, Meadows quit school at age sixteen so that he could earn enough money to study painting at the local art school, which he did from 1934 to 1936. He spent the next three years working for and studying under the sculptor Henry Moore, from whom he learned about direct carving and the biomorphic forms of surrealism. Moore became a mentor to Meadows, and they remained friends for half a century.
From 1941 to 1946, Meadows served in the Royal Air Force, mostly in South and Southeast Asia. Demobilized in England, he returned to sculpting, but there were few opportunities until 1951, when he was commissioned to create a figure sculpture for the Festival of Britain (a national celebration of return to normal life). The following year he exhibited at the British pavilion in the Venice Biennale along with sculptors Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Eduardo Paolozzi, and William Turnbull. In the catalogue introduction, Herbert Read appropriated a phrase from a poem by T. S. Eliot—“the geometry of fear”—to describe the dark mood of their sculptures.
Meadows sculpted mostly 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 as if needing constant defense against physical and psychological threats.
Afterward, Meadows changed his style to pure abstraction in the biomorphic style, with smooth, highly polished surfaces—pleasingly decorative but lacking the power of his armored figures.
The inspiration for Meadows’s armored forms came primarily from the carapaces of crustaceans, but the contextual allusion was to the armor-plating of modern war vehicles. In his words, these “figures are armored, aggressive, protected, but inside the safety of the shell they are completely soft and vulnerable.”
The title of this sculpture refers to the powerful Roman emperor Augustus, 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. More importantly, the empire began to enjoy a new era of internal peace known as the Pax Romana, which lasted for nearly two hundred years. Historians consider the Pax Romana as the greatest era of the empire. During that time a new legal system was created, and the economy and the arts flourished. Among the many extraordinary marbles of that time was the official portrait sculpture of Augustus himself: a life-size, frontal, standing image of the emperor wearing a short toga and raising one arm. In some variants he was depicted in ceremonial armor.
Meadows’s sculpture alludes to that prototype. His 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, which imply that this man (and the empire he symbolized) has suffered hardships. The once-powerful arms have shrunk to puny, fingerless appendages. To British viewers the analogy to their own empire was clear, as the independence of their former colonies left the British empire economically and militarily diminished. On a less literal level, Meadows’s Augustus implies that in the modern era the old concepts of class structure and imperial rule no longer survive except in damaged form.
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.