‘The shapes we are creating are not abstract, they are absolute.’
Naum Gabo, 1937
Barbara Hepworth was a practitioner of direct carving, and resonating through Rhythmic Form are various rhythms: those of the artist at work, of the work in space, and of the context of its production. Alan Wilkinson has described the shape of Rhythmic Form as a ‘soaring upright’. It has all the grace of Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1927), and yet it is hewn from the land, shaped in such a way as to create a spatial bond between place, form and the inner creative spirit of the artist. For Hepworth, sculpture was the ‘plastic projection of thought’ – a way of translating ideas that can only be expressed through direct and spontaneous acts of engagement with a material in order to arrive organically at something whole and complete. Once finished, the work can then stand by itself, its power lying in the fact that, as she wrote in 1937, it ‘puts no pressure on anything’.
Hepworth’s earliest sculptures were largely figurative. During the 1930s, having visited the studios of Arp and Brancusi whilst in Paris, and under the influence of Nicholson, Moore, Gabo and other members of the Unit One group in London, her work took on a greater level of abstraction. The human figure was re-imagined and taken in new directions exploring scale, poise, and natural form. Wilkinson has argued that seeing the work of Arp generated what was to become for Hepworth ‘a life-long obsession – the almost mystical identification with the human figure and human spirit inhabiting the landscape’. In 1937, the critic J. D. Bernal compared her sculpture to ‘the Neolithic Menhirs which stand through Cornwall and Brittany as memorials to long forgotten dead’ and whose stones were pierced so as to ‘furnish a means of egress for the soul’. In 1939, at the invitation of critic Adrian Stokes, Hepworth left London for Carbis Bay, just outside St Ives, travelling with her husband, Ben Nicholson, and their three children. The area was to play a key role in Hepworth’s work, and later sculptures frequently referred to local sites.
Another recurring motif in Hepworth’s sculpture is the hole. It is a powerful gesture of both creation and amputation that can be seen as a resolutely feminine act of empowerment. It is like an eye that has bored right through the wood, uniting both sides of the work and endowing it simultaneously with asymmetry, incision and cohesion. Another technique, first prompted by Moore’s figures of the late 1930s, was to incorporate string. Works such as Pelagos (1946) and Wave (1943) are good examples of this, and it can also be seen developed in later bronze sculptures such as Winged Figure, which adorns the John Lewis Partnership building on Oxford Street, London, inaugurated in April 1963. The sense of a dynamic equilibrium between competing shapes and asymmetries is crucial to Hepworth. As she states, ‘Asymmetry can be found in the tension, balance, inner vital impact with space and in the scale.’ Within this tension is held the ‘inner force and energy’ between ‘thought and medium’, which gives the work its lasting vital presence.
(c) Richard Parry 2009
1 Naum Gabo, ‘Sculpture and Construction in Space’, in J. L. Martin, Ben Nicholson and N. Gabo (eds.), Circle (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 109.
2 Alan G. Wilkinson, ‘The 1930s: Constructive Forms and Poetic Structure’, in Penelope Curtis and A. G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1994), 64. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
3 Museum of Modern Art, New York.
4 Barbara Hepworth, ‘Sculpture’, in Circle (1937), 114.
5 Ibid., 116. = sculpture in Circle
6 Wilkinson, ‘The 1930s’, 45
7 Ibid., 62. = wilkinson 1930s
8 Tate Collection, London.
10 Hepworth, ‘Sculpture’, 114.