According to a letter from the artist, dated 19th November 1980, the present cast of 'Circe Head' was the first example to be produced using the ‘shell bronze’ technique, in which small pieces of bronze were cast and assembled. Under the supervision of Butler, a further 3 bronze casts were produced by Susse Freres in Paris in 1954-5, including the one in the Tate Gallery's collection.
During the 1950s the image of a disjointed and abstracted head appeared in the work of several British artists including Butler’s friends Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson. In this period Paolozzi had become preoccupied with “the construction of hellish monsters”, evident in works such as 'Cyclops' (1957). Similarly, in 'Circe Head' Butler references the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. By replacing idealised classical statuary with a misshapen head from which wires and nails protrude, 'Circe Head' can be read as an ironic comment on the condition of modern man. This work is also an early example of Butler’s sexualised sculptures of the female form, which he developed from the 1950s onwards. The form of the sculpture, reminiscent of a brutalised phallus, reflects Butler’s perception of women’s power over men.
Butler was a friend of Francis Bacon and exhibited with him at the ICA in 1950. The anguished face of 'Circe Head' echoes the screaming figure in the right hand panel of Bacon's 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' (c.1944). By including wires in the side of the head he evoked “the agony of torture through electrocution” (Margaret Garlake, ‘The Sculpture of Reg Butler’, 2006). The theme of torture was significant for Butler who won an international competition to design a monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner, in which he paid tribute “to those who had died in the concentration camps”. In a series of drawings, each entitled 'Study for Head of Watcher' (1951-2), Butler imagined witnesses of war, with their heads thrown back in grief, as Circe’s is here in an evocative vision of human suffering.
London, Hanover Gallery, Reg Butler, 22 April - 4 June 1954, cat no.9
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Items for Collectors Exhibition, 5 August - 4 September 1954, cat no.12
New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, Reg Butler, 11 January - 5 February 1955, cat no.14, illus b/w
Munich, Kunstverein, Young British Sculptors 1955-6, British Council, November 1955 - August 1956, touring to:
Stuttgart, Freiberg, Karlsruhe, Recklinghausen, Dusseldorf, Germany and the Netherlands
London, Hanover Gallery, Reg Butler, May - June 1957, cat no.2, illus b/w
Berlin, Galerie Springer, Reg Butler, July - September 1957, cat no. 2, illus b/w
Louisville, Kentucky, J.B. Speed Art Museum, Reg Butler: A Retrospective Exhibition, 22 October - 1 December 1963, cat no.31, illus b/w
London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Part Two: Symbol and Imagination, 1951-1980, 27 November 1981 - 24 January 1982, cat no.39
London, Tate Gallery, Reg Butler, 16 November 1983 - 15 January 1984, cat no.47, illus b/w
London, Tate Gallery, Suffering Through Tyranny, 1933-1984, December 1984 - May 1985
Addison Franklin Page, 'Reg Butler: A Retrospective Exhibition', exhibition catalogue, J.B. Speed ArtMuseum, Louisville, Kentucky, 1963
Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984-86, 1988
Margaret Garlake, 'The Sculpture of Reg Butler', The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, 2006, no.111, p.134, fig.68, illustrated p.78 and p.15 (illustration of Young British Sculptors exhibition).