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Barbara Hepworth, ‘Figure (Walnut)’

by Chris Stephens, Head of Displays and Lead Curator, Tate Britain

Citing Michelangelo as a precedent, early in the 20th century artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein pioneered a return to the artist’s carving of wood and stone. Their solitary labour in the studio was a key aspect of the identity of the modern sculptor, and the relationship between their chosen material and the form and content of the final sculpture was crucial to the modernism of the work.

With her close friend Henry Moore and first husband John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth was one of the leading inheritors of direct carving in Britain. She said in her earliest published statement: “Carving to me is more interesting than modelling because there is a limited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration. Each material demands a particular treatment and there are an infinite number of subjects in life, each to be re-created in a particular material. In fact, it would be possible to carve the same subject in a different stone each time, throughout life, without a repetition of form.”

As with stone, Hepworth preferred hard woods that offered more resistance to her chisel. In contrast to the complex tunnelling through of Henry Moore’s elm reclining figures, her sculptures seem to take their point of departure from the simple verticality of the log.

The relationship between the figure and the inherent verticality reached its apogee with Hepworth’s ‘Single Form’ sculptures during the 1930s. These were the highpoint of her quest for a pure, abstract sculpture though she later identified them as highly simplified torsos. They rise from a narrow base, gradually broadening out until tapering slightly towards a flat top. The fronts are slightly curved, while the backs project (so that the sculptures are roughly triangular in plan) and then they too taper towards the top. For a British viewer, the suggestion of a cricket bat is inescapable. These works are subtly asymmetrical and a similar organic irregularity could be seen in other pieces of the same period.

It was with the wooden sculptures of the 1940s that Hepworth took one of her most significant steps, technically as well as aesthetically. In the planewood ‘Oval Sculpture’ (1943), she converted the log into a simple, totally abstract shape and tunnelled through the solid timber so that several cavities come together to open out a single interior space. The inner faces were painted with an opaque, hard white paint to accentuate the contrast between the outer surface of the wood and the space that had been opened up within. The tension between the inside and outside, surface and mass of the sculpture became a key characteristic of Hepworth’s art. It informed her work in stone and bronze but it was the potentialities of wood which first allowed her to explore this idea to its extreme.