From Figuration to Abstraction

Delve deeper into Barbara Hepworth's relationship with form over time.

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Single Form (1937) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Barbara Hepworth’s work underwent a significant change as she shifted from creating figurative, representational carvings, to producing works that were entirely abstract. 

Torso (1929) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

During the mid to late 1920s Hepworth had become identified with a sculptural practice known as ‘direct carving’. 

Pioneered by sculptors such as Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska before the first world war, direct carving challenged the nineteenth century tradition of modelling, where a sculpture was first modelled in clay before a craftsman produced the final work in bronze or stone.

Kneeling Figure (1932) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Direct carving allowed the artist control of the work from start to finish by carving directly into stone or wood. This approach looked to both medieval precedents and to the example of non-Western art, which modernist artists such as Hepworth encountered in ethnographic collections, particularly at the British Museum.

‘I have always preferred direct carving to modelling because I like the resistance of the hard material and feel happier working that way [...] An idea for carving must be clearly formed before starting and sustained during the long process of working; also, there are the beauties of several hundreds of different stones and woods, and the idea must be in harmony with the qualities of each one carved...’     



~-Barbara Hepworth, ‘The Sculptor carves because he must’, The Studio, 1932

Figure in Sycamore (1931) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In the above quotation, Hepworth sets out the concept of ‘truth to materials’: the idea that the form or subject of a sculpture should be in harmony with its material. The material should dictate the form, rather than having an idea imposed onto it. In Figure in Sycamore (1931), the base of the sculpture is left as a tree trunk, out of  the figure emerges.

Torso (1929) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

The human figure formed the focus of Hepworth’s work of the late 1920s and early 1930s. During this period she produced a  number of carved torsos which show her experimenting with different materials, including hardwoods from Africa and South East Asia such as Pinkardo wood, teak and African ivory wood. The carving of these woods required significant technical skill and strength.

Figure in Sycamore (1931) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Although Hepworth was continuing to work in a figurative manner, by 1930 she was starting to think in abstract terms: 

abstract form, the relation of masses and planes, is that which gives sculptural life; this, then, admits that a piece of sculpture can be purely abstract or non-representational.’ 

However, she was not ready to abandon figuration altogether: 

‘There are, however, degrees between pure representation and the abstract. Generalisation, by which I mean an accumulative assertion of the emotion of a thing, is nearer to the abstract than particularisation which is a faithful portrayal of an individual object. My trend is towards generalisation; but I have not dispensed with representation entirely...’

~Barbara Hepworth, text for The Architectural Association Journal, April 1930

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s work of the early 1930s sits in this in-between space between ‘pure representation and the abstract’. While the form of Mother and Child (1934) is still recognisably that of an infant and its mother, it is far less well defined than her earlier sculptures and embraces an organic and biomorphic language.

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

With Mother and Child  Hepworth dispensed with the single sculptural mass, instead producing a multi-part sculpture where the child is a separate entity, a pebble seated on its mother’s lap.

Two Forms (1934/35) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In late 1934 Hepworth took the dramatic move to abandon figuration entirely, instead producing works that utilised solely abstract forms.  This sudden shift coincided with the birth of her triplets in October 1934.   

‘When I started carving again in November 1934, my work seemed to have changed direction although the only fresh influence had been the arrival of the children. The work was more formal and all traces of naturalism had disappeared.’

~Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970

Although superficially there might seem little to connect Two Forms (1934-5) with the earlier Mother and Child,  Hepworth later stated that both periods of work contained ‘the same ideas of form, emotion, tension & so on’. 

Mother and Child, Barbara Hepworth, 1934, From the collection of: The Hepworth Wakefield
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Two Forms, Barbara Hepworth, 1934/35, From the collection of: The Hepworth Wakefield
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‘The Mother & Child or “group” became a Two Form’

Torso, Barbara Hepworth, 1929, From the collection of: The Hepworth Wakefield
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Single Form, Barbara Hepworth, 1937, From the collection of: The Hepworth Wakefield
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 ‘the Torso or figure became the Single Form’

Barbara Hepworth carving Head (The Hepworth Photograph Collection), Barbara Hepworth, 1930, From the collection of: The Hepworth Wakefield
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Pierced Hemisphere, Barbara Hepworth, 1937/1937, From the collection of: The Hepworth Wakefield
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‘The Head evolved into Single Form & Pierced Hemisphere’   ~Barbara Hepworth to E. H. Ramsden

Single Form (1937) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1954 Hepworth identified the three different forms to which she continually returned. These were the ‘standing form’, the ‘two forms’ and the ‘closed form’.

Pierced Hemisphere I (1937) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

'the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form...'

~  Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927 to 1954

Mother and Child (1934) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

For Hepworth, Mother and Child and Two Forms were two different iterations of the ‘two forms’; Torso and Figure in Sycamore epitomised the ‘standing form’; and Head (1930) and Pierced Hemisphere I (1937) were variations of the ‘closed form’.

Two Rocks (1971) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Throughout the years Hepworth would return to these three fundamental sculptural forms, sometimes as figurative works, at other times abstracted.

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