In 1972, a swimmer found two lifesize Greek bronzes in the sea off the Italian coast near Riace. Dated to around 500BC, these beautifully modelled figures became known as the Riace Warriors and their public display in 1981 was a major cultural event.
They also captured the imagination of British sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink. Frink had always been drawn to the male figure, finding it a suitable vehicle to express one of her central preoccupations – what it means to be human.
The human condition was something she explored unflinchingly in her art. Frink believed that artists had a political responsibility to highlight brutality and injustice. She was a fervent supporter of Amnesty International and a lifelong humanitarian. Conflict and war were important subjects for her. She was interested to learn that scholars believed the centuries old Riace warriors were images of mercenaries, “thugs”, as she described them. Their age must also have appealed – when she spoke of her interest in human nature, she commented that her concern was “not that mankind is any worse than it was: it is just that it is as bad as it was”.
Deciding to make new versions of the warriors, she began work on the series a few years after seeing the original bronzes. Between 1986 and 1989 she made four different Riace figures. They show her ability to convey potency and movement in a static material – pulsating sinew and muscle, ready to spring in any direction. The figures have a sense of menace and urgency but are also beautiful evocations of physical power. Their ambivalence cuts to the heart of Frink’s work, she acknowledged human aggression and strength alongside vulnerability and mortality.
Their painted faces were a new departure for her. In the early 1980s she had declared that she was bored by the traditional brown patination of bronzes and began to experiment with painting her surfaces and coloured patinas. By painting their faces, Frink masked her warriors. These masks, she said later, are “a way of showing that their beauty in a sense hides what they are up to. They’re to do with our collective past, but they’re also a part of today’s world”.