LEEDS : Book Review: Mitzi Cunliffe: An American in Manchester

I studied at the University of Leeds and only half-glimpsed Man-Made Fibres in my three years there. The sculpture is perched on top of Clothworker's Building South, along the main campus thoroughfare, yet it is fairly modest and unassuming. The woven fingers and threads reside in a recess, also made of Portland stone, in the central section of the façade. Until picking up this book, I confess, I was unaware of the artist and that she designed the iconic BAFTA mask.

This title explores the work and life of American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe during her 15 years in Manchester, 1949-64. Sumner guides the reader through Cunliffe’s Festival of Britain work, designs for industry, significant commissions such as the BAFTA Mask and Man-Made Fibres, cast pieces and the shift towards fibreglass ‘sculptural facings’ in her later career.

The text is peppered with extraordinary black and white images of works, both in progress in the studio and completed in situ, often accompanied by Cunliffe herself. She turns to the camera with a knowing smile as a team of 6 men struggle to carry a plaster Man and Technic from her home in Didsbury.  In another image she is posed carving a strand of Man-Made Fibres with a pneumatic drill, surrounded by planning illustrations. There is also a selection of colour plates which convey the ‘deep dusty pink’ of Root Bodied Forth and the materiality of a bronze cast Man-Made Fibres maquette. The breadth, intimacy and quality of the images can largely be attributed to Cunliffe’s daughter Antonia, who allowed the reproduction of her family archive.

Although there is naturally a focus on Cunliffe’s artistic output, the book is far more than just a list of works. Sumner captures a powerful sense of a motivated and tenacious character who re-established herself as a prominent artist in the UK under her married name, after a successful career in America as Mitzi Solomon. Cunliffe was well-known and respected in academic circles, a media personality (Sumner lists the impressive breadth of her appearances across both radio and television) and a savvy self-promoter who used professional photographers and newspapers to cover her artwork.