Tom Bass

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Ethos – emblem of a Utopian vision

Commissioned by architect Roy Simpson as he was creating Civic Square in Canberra in 1959 , Tom Bass conceived and sculpted Ethos as an emblem of the Utopian vision inherent in Simpson’s confident assertion of Modernist architectural style.

In this film, CMAG Senior Curator Virginia Rigney with Architect and Heritage Consultant David Hobbes tell the great story of the Utopian ideals behind the design and the public art of the Square.

The conversation considers recent acquisitions to CMAG’s Collection including images of Civic Square and the sculpture of Head of Ethos by Tom Bass, and how images of the completed buildings were used throughout the 1960s to promote the city. Presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra festival (4-24 November 2019)

Of Ethos Bass said:

In 1959 I created the figure Ethos for the Civic Square in Canberra.This was a great opportunity to create a totem for a city that was not yet really a city.  Instead, Canberra was a synthetic city with a synthetic community. These people had not come together out of the dynamic that usually creates a city, but out of a plan.They had been sent there virtually against their wills. So I saw my task as being to CREATE an emblem that would express the real possibilities of a place like Canberra. I began with a saucer-like base which shows the terrain and plan of the city, physically located in a basin. In that bowl you can see the Burley Griffin plan and the topographical features of Canberra—the lake and so on. The figure rises up out of this. She wears a garment and its fabric is the people of Canberra, the ever-changing community. In the same way that our clothes wear out and are changed, the ‘fabric’ of the community is always changing. She is winged, which expresses the spirit of the place. And she holds aloft the sun which refers to the fact that this is a university town.

There is a statement by Albert Camus that sums up a lot of what I feel about my role as a civic sculptor, and I hope it may be seen in Ethos. Camus speaks of sculpture as ‘The greatest and most ambitious of all the arts’. He says it unites the disorder of man’s movements ‘in the unity of a great style’. Sculpture seeks to capture the universal gesture which sums up all gestures. It creates in the public space of a city ‘the model, the type, the perfect immobile symbol, which for a moment cools the incessant fever of man.’

Totem Maker by Tom Bass and Harris Smart p68