A Spotlight on Public Art – Mitzi Cunliffe

With the new appointment of Public Art Project Officer Ann Sumner, we begin a new series of monthly posts highlighting the sculptural treasures which await discovery on the University of Leeds campus.

Man Made Fibres by Mitzi Cunliffe, 1955 – 6, Clothworkers Building South, University of Leeds Campus

‘Sculpture must again be made accessible’ wrote the extraordinary American sculptor Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe in 1950 in Sculpture for Architecture. ‘Sculpture withers now in the hot house of galleries and museums for temporary exhibits, catering to a faceless feeble audience of dilettantes and critics,’ she continues. Cunliffe wanted to see sculpture ‘taken for granted by people as part of the natural environment, the stuff of life’.

It is certainly true to say that many students and staff here at the University of Leeds, as well as visitors onto campus, may overlook her important sculpture Man Made Fibres, for it is situated so high over the entrance on the side of the Clothworkers’ Building South. The University’s new Public Art Strategy is currently being finalised and in a new approach to curating the unique campus at Leeds, the sculpture will however be highlighted and fully interpreted over the next few years along with the other sculptures situated on campus. The University’s public art collection is under the care of The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery which will be featuring a monthly focus on public art in its e-newsletter and blog and through its social media channels. Each month going forward, a member of staff from the University will explain why a key artwork on campus has special meaning for them. Cunliffe’s piece is the first to be selected. This work is particularly appropriate for the month of February as Cunliffe is best known for her design of the famous theatrical mask, the BAFTA award, which she designed during the same period in which she was commissioned to sculpt Man Made Fibres.

The Artist 

Mitzi Solomon Cunliffe (1918 – 2006) was born in New York and attended the Art Students League of New York from 1930 – 1933 before studying fine art at Columbia University from 1935 – 40.  She moved to Paris where she attended the Academie Cobrossi for a year before continuing her studies in Sweden. Her early works were greatly admired by Le Courbusier. In 1949, Cunliffe came to England where she married a British academic and moved to Manchester where her new husband taught at the University. Her first large scale public artworks were commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951, on London’s South Bank. She was amongst 15 painters and sculptors that produced new work for facades and interiors, six of whom were women. Her most significant piece was Root Bodied Forth, an 8ft concrete group. She also designed a pair of Push and Pull door handles for the Regatta Restaurant. In 1952 she created The Quickening which is now at the School of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool and probably her best known commission was a pierced screen for John Lewis’s Department store, also in Liverpool. Her work from this period displays huge optimism about the possibilities of working during a period of reconstruction.

It was in 1955 that she was commissioned to create the now infamous bronze awards for the Guild of Television Producers and Directors; the same year in which she was commissioned to create the work at Leeds University. During the 1960s, Cunliffe turned from creating individual pieces towards mass production with more abstract deigns for casting in concrete. These she described as Sculpture by the Yard, the title of an exhibition which toured widely in Britain and abroad. Her last major commission was 4 panels for the Scottish Life House in London (completed 1970/demolished 2007, panels preserved). The effort involved in creating this work using heavy power tools and working to a strict deadline, was crippling for her physically. Coming just a year after her divorce, it was to be her last work before a career change, turning to teaching, first at Thomas Polytechnic (now South Bank University) and later in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. She wrote regularly on sculpture and architecture, for instance ‘The Possibilities of University Architecture’ in Architecture and Building, 1959. In later life, living in Oxford, Cunliffe fell victim to Alzheimer’s. She last exhibited in 2001 at Oxford Brookes University in an exhibition for Alzheimer’s sufferers entitled Look Closer – See Me. In 1999, a Travelling Scholarship in her name was established at the Ruskin School of Drawing at the University of Oxford.

The Commission 

In July 1955, having been in discussion with the sculptor for six months beforehand, the University of Leeds commissioned Cunliffe to commission a new sculptural work for the Clothworkers’ South Building (then called the Man Made Fibres building.)  Preparatory drawings were submitted in August 1955 and materials agreed by the end of the year, with the Portland stone and turntable required for making, being delivered to her Didsbury studio just before Christmas of the same year. Cunliffe recalls that she started the sculpture on 13 February 1956, having completed all the preparatory maquettes. She worked on the piece for five months and it was installed and unveiled to the public in the summer of 1956. A fee of £2,450 was paid to her by the University. Press interest during the project came from the Manchester Guardian and the London Evening Standard. During her time working on the commission, Cunliffe developed a close working relationship with Professor J B Speakman of the Department of Textile Industries and a large correspondence between the two survives, alongside documentary photographs which are now held in the archive of The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery.

The commission coincided with the production of Cunliffe’s most famous work, the design for the awards for the Guild of Television Producers & Directors (what we now know as the BAFTAs). On Oct 12 1955, she wrote to Prof Speakman that she was ‘enclosing some photos of the tiny 7 inch trophy I have designed for the Guild of Television Producers and Directors, six bronze casts of which were awarded on 10 October. The picture of me is included only to show you the inside-out of the mask, plus the preliminary drawings’. She also inquires as to whether a further commission for a mural is to be progressed or ‘has it died a death’? Cunliffe remained engaged with the University of Leeds, maintaining her friendship with the Professor, loaning a bronze maquette in 1961 and recording that in the late 1950s when she was in Leeds she visited the campus at night to see how the piece was weathering. To mark 60 years since the commission, a related display about the commission and this fascinating female artist is scheduled for 2016.