The sculpture comes from a period Armitage termed "the most creative period of my life". ‘Figure Lying on its Side’ is a highlight of MODERN MADE: Modern Art, Sculpture, Design & Contemporary Ceramics taking place in London on 27 March.
Kenneth Armitage belonged to a generation of artists whose young career was disrupted by the Second World War, an experience that would be deeply influential to his artistic output creating a powerful framework for the work of himself and his contemporaries.
In 1952 Armitage, alongside Lynn Chadwick, William Turnbull, Reg Butler, Bernard Meadows, Geoffrey Clarke and Eduardo Paolozzi, was included in the landmark New Aspects of British Sculpture exhibition in the British pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale. In his introduction to the catalogue, the art critic Herbert Read declared that the highly charged selection shared "a Jungian collective unconscious guilt…Here are images of flight, of ragged claws, 'scuttling across the floors of silent seas'", famously coining the term 'the geometry of fear' to describe them. In the British Council Fine Arts committee report Lilian Somerville wrote that "it was undoubtedly Armitage who excited the most interest", (quoted in Scott, p.32) and the exhibition marked the beginning of widespread international acclaim, and included pieces being acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
An important example of his large-scale sculptures of the 1950s, Figure Lying on its Side was created in 1957 and was the fourth of five versions. It comes from a period Armitage termed "the most creative period of my life", when he began working on a larger scale, and was re-considering how figurative sculpture should be taken away from the domestic and gallery settings, and placed in connection to the ground, anchoring it in reality and space. This is exactly what Armitage does, with the flattened form that makes the mass of the body, and limbs "reduced almost to sticks" (the artist, quoted in Woollcombe, p.44), exaggerating the horizontality and verticality, and embedding it to the spot, unable or unwilling to move. It presents a fragile figure, the bronze surface pitted and marked and as Tamsyn Woollcombe notes "further evidence of the figure worn down by a hostile world…one whose recovery was overshadowed by the looming Cold War...yet its stance and survival also tells of tenacity".
A year later in 1958, Armitage was once again invited to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale, but this time as its sole sculptor. This accolade, as well as inclusion in an exhibition of figurative art at the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1950s - with his work shown alongside the likes of Giacometti - established him as one of the most important voices of contemporary post-war sculpture. Figure Lying on its Side belongs to the significant series of works of the period, and it displays his singular and powerful vision; part of a body of work which drew the notice of the international art world, intuitively capturing the essence of his times.