LONDON –Acclaimed Anglo-Israeli artist and self-taught sculptor Chaim Stephenson had a lifelong sympathy for people driven from their homes.
In a career that spanned over 60 years, he produced a huge body of work. A selection of that work is displayed through May 10 in a mesmerizing London exhibition, Between Myth and Reality, which focuses on the themes of refugees and the Old Testament.
“Chaim never made a statue of lone children, they were always families or mothers and children. But I think if he were alive and working now we would see statues of children fleeing, completely bereft and alone,” says Stephenson’s widow, the renowned British writer Lynne Reid Banks, speaking on the phone from her home.
“He would have been a wonderful person to draw attention [to their current plight] through his work,” she says.
Stephenson’s pieces exude compassion, drama and narrative. There are evocations of families escaping famine, war or other catastrophes such as “Fleeing Family” or “Warning Man,” who holds his head in despair as he runs to warn others of oncoming disaster.
Some display human suffering with considerable tenderness, despite their hard material form. A child is enveloped in its mother’s robes as she stares ahead in “Fleeing Mother & Child,” one of Stephenson’s last works depicting refugees.
He felt passionately about the plight of refugees, says Banks, and many of the pieces in Between Myth and Reality were made at the time of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s.
“We wanted one of the main themes to be refugees because of its contemporary relevance,” explains Banks, “and because refugees were a theme throughout Stephenson’s life.”
She recalls that they wanted to offer hospitality to refugees from the region, only to be told rather tersely by the British Home Office, “If you want a refugee, you’d better go and get one.”
From Britain to Israel and back
Between Myth and Reality is held in the foyer of the refurbished, glass domed crypt at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a landmark, vibrant church in the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square in central London. Accessed via a spiral staircase, the exhibition is in a prominent, bright open space, conveniently close to the crypt’s busy gift shop and café.
Stephenson died in February 2016, aged 89, and the exhibition is a fitting tribute to his wonderful legacy, says his youngest son, Omri, a London-based digital designer and illustrator who initiated the show.
“We wanted him to achieve the wider recognition he always deserved,” says Omri.
The Old Testament theme was deliberately chosen, Omri says, as it was obviously appropriate to the church location, but Stephenson also already had a connection with St. Martins. In the 1990s, it had commissioned him to create its Living South Africa Memorial. The sculpture “Homage to Soweto” is on permanent display inside the church.
His personal path is as divergent as his way into the art world. Chaim Stephenson was born in Liverpool to Russian immigrant parents. In 1947, he was part of a group of young migrants who illegally entered Palestine, training as farmers. He later joined the elite Palmach brigade and fought in the Israeli War of Independence, where he met and worked with men and women who had fled Nazi Europe.
After the war, he moved to the newly established Kibbutz Yas’ur, which had been founded by English and Hungarian immigrants in the north of Israel.
Stephenson worked as a shepherd and gardener on the kibbutz for 21 years, using his limited spare time to hone his craft. The inclusion of the piece “Boy on a Horse” is a nod to his days as a shepherd when he would ride out with the sheep to pasture. He met Banks in 1960, during a year’s study leave in England and, unable to marry in Israel as Banks is not Jewish, they married in Cyprus. They lived on the kibbutz until 1971 and then returned to England with their three sons.
Despite being a strong non-believer, Stephenson was inspired by the stories of the Old Testament. His Biblical figures are striking and passionate.
“[Countless] people said to him, even though you profess non-belief, you must have some deep spirited source to make such powerful images,” says Banks. “He felt these stories were so important to his Jewishness. He said they are part of Jewish tradition, part of the roots of Jewish myths but he didn’t want it to be thought that he believed everything as gospel. He had a take on every [Biblical] piece that he did.”
Stephenson had thought that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was one of the most moving but also one of the darkest stories in the Bible, says Banks — “that God should ask such a thing of somebody that was devoted to him, that he [should] make this huge sacrifice of somebody he loved.”
In “Abraham & Isaac,” Stephenson shows Abraham kneeling, throwing his head back as he looks up at God in anger, anguish and bewilderment. Abraham holds his son to his breast in an attempt to shield him from both his pain and the sight of the sacrificial knife.
The rib-exposed figure of Job is no less poignant. On bent knee and with raised arms, Job cries up in anger towards God at his misfortunes. But amid sculptures of despair, there are also figures full of hope such as “Noah & the Dove,” showing Noah casting his dove from the ark to find dry land after the flood has subsided. The accompanying text reads, “The keynote of this sculpture is hope that springs eternal.”
Birds feature again in two large, exquisite, companion pieces, The “Girl with a Bird” and “The Boy with the Bird,” both of which have a childlike innocence about them.
Stephenson worked with different media — clay, wood, bronze, resin as well as plaster — and he experimented with techniques, including pouring concrete over welded armatures. As well as refugee and Biblical themes, he sculpted birds, animals, family scenes and subjects from Greek myths.
Many of his male figures are thin, sinewy, Giacometti-like forms but why this was so is not certain.
“This is one of the very frequent moments when I wish I could turn to him and [ask him],” says Banks, before suggesting that, “I think it was to do with poverty, to do with intensity, to do with getting down to the bones and sinews of humanity.”
Until now, Stephenson had only exhibited in small galleries or churches and Between Myth and Reality is not only the largest exhibition of his work, featuring approximately 35 pieces, but it is a rare opportunity to see his sculptures exhibited publicly as his work is mostly held in private collections.
“He was the absolute opposite of self promoter,” says Banks. “He was really too modest to think of something as big as this.”
Between Myth and Reality runs until May 10.