Illustrated companion

The 1950s was a period of great expansion for Barbara Hepworth both in her work and reputation. She began to receive commissions for large public sculptures which called for her to work on a larger scale than ever before, and she now had the financial resources to make large scale sculpture of her own whenever she wanted. 'Figure (Nanjizal)' is one of a sequence of majestic wood carvings that Hepworth made from about 1954 onwards. Nanjizal is a Cornish place name and this work is characteristic in its embodiment in abstract form of the artist's complex response to the Cornish landscape. In 1952 she wrote that this was '... a landscape which still has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of human figure in landscape - sculpture in landscape ...' She also wrote 'From the sculptor's point of view one can either be the spectator of the object or the object itself. For a few years I became the object. I was the figure in the landscape and every sculpture contained to a greater or lesser degree the ever-changing forms and contours embodying my own response to a given position in that landscape ...' The title of this work, as well as its appearance, suggests that this statement may be relevant. Indeed, in a letter to the Tate Gallery of 1961 on the subject of this and another sculpture with a Cornish place-name title, the artist wrote 'Nanjizal is a superb cove with archways through the cliffs. Both sculptures are really my sensations within myself when resting in these two places.'

An opening up of the sculpture with pierced holes became an increasingly notable feature of Hepworth's work at this time, although she had begun to do this as early as 1931. She has said that this procedure '... seems to open up an infinite variety of continuous curves in the third dimension ...' She also began to add colour to the inside surfaces of the holes, writing that 'The colour in the concavities plunged me into the depth of water, caves, or shadows deeper than the concavities themselves ...' In this sculpture the holes are lightly coated with chalky white, perhaps evoking the quality of light in the arches of the cliffs at Nanjizal.

This piece is a notable example of the doctrine of 'truth to materials', so important to modern carved sculpture, giving the feeling that the forms have been found naturally within the single trunk of yew from which it is made. The sculptor has also brought out with great success the intrinsic beauty of the wood, its colour and grain.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.223