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Before silence

Betty Goodwin
Before Silence, 1998
bronze on painted wood shelf
29.6 x 28 x 39.5 cm
Purchased 1998
© B. Goodwin

Betty Goodwin is particularly known and respected for her drawing, but she has frequently turned to sculpture when she has felt the need for its special gravity and material qualities. And the association of sculpture with the art of the memorial, in response to the need for a permanent marker of humankind’s fugitive presence on earth, makes it a fitting choice for Goodwin, whose art so often evokes the pain of memory and the passage of time. Although her sculptures have most often taken the form of altar-like tablets or reliquaries, Before Silence is a rare example in Goodwin’s oeuvre of a fully figurative sculpture.

A life-size bronze of a truncated foot held by two hands at the ankle, the work is related to several drawings and a sculpture made a year or two earlier in which the theme of restraint and arrest was rendered through figures climbing ladders while others attempt to hold them back. Of this series, an untitled sculpture in beeswax and steel is the closest precursor of Before Silence, both in theme and in the eloquent economy of its rendering. There, Goodwin presented a lean, elongated arm clutching the rung of a ladder tightly while the hand of another figure grips it from below. The tension of the gesture is reinforced by its ambiguity: is the hand grasping for help or is it trying to pull the other down? The theme of restraint is treated in a similarly equivocal way in Before Silence. The hands holding the ankle are as evocative of steadying and guidance as they are of restraint and clinging.

This ambiguity, combined with the apparent equilibrium of the forces represented by the firm hands and the static foot, which may only be that of an elusive and fleeting moment between the movements of violent constraint or desperate clinging, is typical of Goodwin’s work. The equilibrium of the gesture in here is all the more poignant in the context of the destabilization that figures so prominently in Goodwin’s ceaseless probing into the human condition through her art. What her work captures so powerfully is the elusive moment of potential transition in which things may turn, unawares, from the safe into the perilous, from the benign into the malignant. It is a delicate moment of heightened tension in which the yearning for anchorage in a centreless universe seems delusive, if not wholly futile. Emerging from this universe, Before Silence speaks of an embeddedness in the tangled web of ambivalences that is the very substance of interior life.

The National Gallery owns a wide range of Goodwin’s work, including an important sculpture, Untitled (1978), and the more recent Sargasso Sea (1992). Before Silence, a unique bronze work that allegorizes the body with compelling art and deep-seated humanism, is a singular addition to these pieces. It attests to the complex inquiry into human struggle and vulnerability by a mature artist whose work has not ceased to be deeply moving.