Construction: Stone with a Collar broke new ground for Naum Gabo. For the first time he incorporated direct carving into his sculpture, and combined his more usual geometric forms with irregular, assymetric lines. Tempering the ideas expressed in his 1920 Realistic Manifesto, where he had rejected sculptural mass in favour of space, he now believed that by ‘adding Space perception to the perception of Masses, emphasising it and forming it, we enrich the expression of Mass ... through the contrast between them whereby Mass retains its solidity and Space its extension’ (‘Sculpture: Carving and Construction in Space’, in J.L. Martin, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo (eds.), Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, London 1937, p.108).
This key development in Gabo’s work came after a protracted period of despondency and inactivity. Increasingly under threat as a Russian Jew in fascist Germany, Gabo left Berlin for Paris in 1932 to join his brother, the sculptor Antoine Pevsner (1886-1962). Despite the links he forged with members of the Parisian avant-garde, including Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Jean Arp (1886-1966), and his involvement with the international artists’ group Abstraction-Création, he struggled to find new patrons and was often desperate for funds. Encouraged by a short trip to London in July 1935, when he saw Jim Ede (1895-1990), an assistant curator at the Tate Gallery, and met some of Ede’s artist friends, Gabo decided to relocate to Britain, finally settling in London in March 1936.
Construction: Stone with a Collar was the only significant work produced during this period of flux between 1932 and 1936. Although Gabo’s wife Miriam believed this work to have been completed before his arrival in England, it seems likely that it was executed in Britain sometime in 1936 or 1937, having been conceived in Paris in around 1933. Gabo seems not to have had enough money in Paris to produce more than small preliminary models. He produced five versions of the piece altogether, including a tiny model (Tate T02172) and the smaller Stone with a Collar c.1933 (Tate T02147). Another version, probably the first fully realised piece, was commissioned by the artist Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) and completed in September 1936. This version is the largest and most highly polished. An early photograph shows that it originally had an extra pair of smaller ‘collars’ of transparent and black plastic which extended the line of the main collar down to the base, but these were broken off or removed, clarifying the sense of circular rhythm (see Gabo: Constructions, Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Engravings With Introductory Essays by Herbert Read and Leslie Martin, London 1957, pl.51).
Gabo’s conjunction of the natural and man-made was a significant departure from his earlier dedication to purely industrial materials, and reflected his desire to express what he saw as the hidden forces of nature. Authors of a recent monograph on Gabo, Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder have detected in Construction: Stone with a Collar the influence of natural rock formations eroded by the wind or sea. Yet his interest in technological and scientific innovation was still keen, and the sculpture’s dynamic curved forms might also be an allusion to recent discoveries in modern physics about spatial curvature, which posited that space itself was curved. Gabo played with contrasts in other ways too, subtly understating the textural qualities of his materials by carving the stone and slate base into a fine finish so that they appear more akin to the smooth surfaces of the plastic and painted brass. He also minimised the mass of the stone by refining it to a sharp edge, and sweeping the brass strip around it to articulate the enclosed ovoid space. Contrasts of black and white are similarly accentuated, the stone and collar seemingly reflected in the dark shadow of the brass and slate.
With no formal artistic training and no previous experience of carving, Gabo practised his new techniques in the workshop of Mr Gumbrill, a London stonemason. While he apparently carved pieces of wood as a child and remembered trying to inscribe words on a stone as a young boy, Gabo’s increasing interest in direct carving from the mid-1930s was undoubtedly heightened by his friendship with Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). Living in Lawn Road, Hampstead, he was close to both artists, as well as a wider avant-garde set which included Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Marcel Breuer (1902-81) and Lázsló Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). Construction: Stone with a Collar signified the beginning of Gabo’s prolonged interest in stone carving, a technique which he continued to explore for the rest of his career.
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven and London 2000, pp.228-9, 235, 247-9, 383-4, reproduced pl.160 and pl.165 in colour
Martin Hammer and Christina Lodder, Gabo’s Stones, exhibition catalogue, The Centre for the Study of Sculpture, Leeds City Art Gallery 1995, reproduced p.2 (34.3)
Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (eds.), Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, Munich 1985, p.218 note 34.3, reproduced p.77 in colour and p.109