the indomitable human spirit
“Art presents us with a gestalt as one way of understanding the world. I am inspired by what I want to express about the feeling of engaging in life and the internal imagery that comes from thinking about it.” - Maurice Blik
Best known for his vast bronze figures — bold, raw and urgent — acclaimed sculptor Maurice Blik places the human condition at the centre of his work. His early bronzes, highly figurative and emotive, tell an enduring story of human struggle and resilience, while the artist, now 80, is producing fresh, diverse work that once again examines the act of living. Born in 1939, to Jewish parents in Amsterdam, Blik’s earliest years were mired by war. In 1943 the family were separated, his father sent to Auschwitz and Blik, along with his sister and pregnant mother, sent to Bergen Belsen — a concentration camp — where he witnessed unimaginable horrors. In 1945, shortly before Belsen was liberated, the Bliks were put on a train, circling the German countryside for nearly two weeks — its passengers held in appalling conditions: “I don’t think those trains were sent out on sightseeing trips,” Blik recalls, “we were going to be done away with.”
Mercifully, the trains were intercepted by Russian troops and the passengers taken to a village near Liepzig. Although just six at the time, Blik’s memories of the experience are strikingly clear — the showmanship of the Cossack horsemen, and their explanation for why their arms were covered in watches from wrist to elbow: “every time we kill a Nazi we take his watch”. From Germany, the family made the journey to England, where Blik’s mother had relatives. “I still don’t know exactly what happened to my father,” Blik told the recent BBC2 documentary, The Last Survivors. “My fantasy is that maybe he was the sort of person who was killed trying to escape Auschwitz, but really I’ve no idea.”
Academically gifted, the trauma of Blik’s childhood drew him to medicine — a desire to heal wounds and save lives — yet ultimately repelled him from it. “At the age of seven, after some extensive surgery, I exclaimed to my mother that I was going to become a medical doctor and cure people. Music to her ears. Until I was 16 that was my only ambition,” Blik recalls. “However, on the night before I had to make my choices for A level, my memories of Belsen came flooding back and I realised that I could not face dead, decaying bodies again. So, I went to art school instead. Amazingly, no one, not my mother, not my teachers, asked why.” Art presents us with “a gestalt as one way of understanding the world. I am inspired by what I want to express about the feeling of engaging in life and the internal imagery that comes from thinking about it.” Although trained as a sculptor (University of Miami, Hornsey College of Art and Design), after leaving art school, Blik stopped creating his own work and instead taught art at institutions across the UK. His entrée into life as a full time artist came in his 40s after a serendipitous, almost accidental, meeting with a client of his first wife, a potter, that led to Blik’s first commission as a sculptor — a series of bronze horse heads.
With characteristic assurance, Blik embraced this change in artistic direction, even learning to write, draw and sculpt with his left hand after his mother confessed that, as a child, his left-handed preference had been strongly discouraged and subsequently lost; Blik found that the mid-life acquisition of ambidexterity unlocked new levels of ability and creativity. In the 40 years since his first commission, Blik has been both prolific and prodigious, achieving his greatest professional successes and accolades as a sculptor, the most significant being his presidency of the Royal Society of Sculptors, fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts and being granted permanent resident status in the US as, “a person of extraordinary artistic ability”. Not to mention the myriad of public and private commissions undertaken during this time, including Renaissance (1995) at London’s East India Dock, Inspired Encounter (2004) at the London headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline and Splish Splash (2005) at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA.
Represented since 2008 by London’s prestigious Bowman Sculpture – founded by former Sotheby’s director of European works of art Robert Bowman and the foremost gallery in the world for Auguste Rodin – Blik’s remarkable productivity and boundless energy show no signs of abating. Indeed Blik has recently finished For the Love of Cyprus (2017), a 6.5m high bronze panel, inspired by Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Commissioned by Erbil Arkin, chairman of the Arkin Group, to reflect his ambition for the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to be reconciled, the huge panel was completed in just 12 months and cast in a mere six. Meanwhile, Blik is poised to, potentially, take on his most ambitious project to date, having been shortlisted for the Arkin Award: a 43m sculpture, overlooking the town of Girne, Cyprus, and the Mediterranean coastline.
Times critic Richard Morrison has described Blik’s creativity as “profoundly moving”, his early work representing “the indomitable human spirit rising from apparent devastation to reach for the beauty that will not be crushed.” Indeed, key to Blik’s success is his ability to thrive in adversity, remaining resolutely hopeful about a world that many in his position would have raged against.
Yet success has not always been straightforward: “It’s always been a struggle to get into the studio and get around my initial feelings of making a sculpture,” Blik admitted to the BBC, revealing a possible reason that is deeply poignant. While in Belsen, Blik fashioned a crude sculpture from items foraged from the camps, as a birthday present for his younger sister; but tragically she died before he could give it to her. Years later, a therapist suggested that this was his first sculpture – an object that had somehow become a symbol of enduring grief and torment, explaining an innate, visceral need to make sculpture, but one which stems from painful internal struggle.
Many critics have thought his early bronzes to be self-portraits, physical manifestations of Blik’s own search to make sense of his past; but in truth, Blik’s wife Debra, believes they represent his father, with whom the physical likeness is unmistakable. The need to recreate the image of his father and “somehow bring my father back to life” has been a great influence on Blik’s work, but also a challenge, a “torment rather than a lovely experience”.
Blik refuses to see himself as a victim, conscious not to allow the past to cast shadows on the future; but it’s impossible to discuss his work without looking back – so inevitable, and so moving, is the echo of the past, so present are those memories, driving him onwards, working his hands to shape clay into forms that could scarcely feel more alive. “I wanted to give life to things,” Blik told the BBC. “Maybe this is a rather curious way of recreating life in sculpture, trying to resurrect these corpses.”
Life and the very action of being alive is at the centre of his most recent work — a series of plaster maquettes, some cast in bronze, engaged in various activities, such as “striding”, “sitting” and “hurrying”. “I’m trying to talk about the activity of life, it’s the here and now,” he says.
For many years Blik has worked traditionally, giving concrete forms to mental images, by building up the clay and casting it. However, the last four years has seen a huge evolution in his process. “One day, by chance, I discovered an alternative method. I found that by excavating the clay and then casting the space within in plaster I could get forms that were fresh and surprising.” he explains. “Modelling the clay with my imagination as my only reference left me free to create sculpture as a direct expression of my internal imagery. I can then work on these plaster pieces to achieve the final result, still retaining the dynamic and exciting original. They can then be cast in bronze, still figurative, but even more expressive and evocative.” Such creative and personal evolution is to be expected from Blik, a universal talent whose greatest work is undoubtedly still to come.
Blik will be participating in the Insiders Outsiders festival, a year-long nationwide arts festival celebrating the indelible contribution of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe to British culture, with an exhibition at Bowman Gallery for one week, 16-20 September, and an artist’s talk on 19 September.