Dame Barbara Hepworth Single Form (September) 1961

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Artwork details

Artist
Title
Single Form (September)
Date 1961
Medium Walnut
Dimensions Object: 825 x 508 x 57 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980
Reference
T03143

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03143 Single Form (September) 1961

BH 312

Walnut 825 x 508 x 57 (32 1/2 x 20 x 2 1/4) on veneered base 35 x 356 x 278 (1 3/8 x 14 x 10 15/16) on black lacquered base 60 x 380 x 305 (2 3/8 x 15 x 10 7/8)

Presented by the executors of the artist's estate, in accordance with her wishes, 1980

Exhibited:
Barbara Hepworth: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May-June 1962 (73, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, April-May 1968 (122, repr. p.36)
St. Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, Feb.-March 1985 (136, repr. in col. p.71)

Literature:
W.J. Strachan, Towards Sculpture: Drawings and Maquettes from Rodin to Oldenberg, 1970, pp.67-8, pl.108
A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.164, repr. pl.141
Alan Bowness (ed.), The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, 1971, pp.10, 32, no.312, repr. p.55, pl.3 (col.)
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.18, repr. p.35
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.120, repr.
Michael Tooby, An Illustrated Companion to the Tate St Ives, 1993, p.84, repr. in col.
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, 1995, p.254

Reproduced:
Introduction to Simple Wood Sculpture, National Federation of Women's Institutes, 1969, p.15
Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970, p.87
Rosemary Heggie, 'The Barbara Hepworth Museum', Lady, 25 June-1 July 1991, p.1327

Displayed in the artist's studio, Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives

In many respects Single Form (September), 1961 has become enmeshed with Barbara Hepworth's friendship with Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations (1953-61), who was killed in an air crash on 18 September 1961. Its subtitle evokes this moment, and the sculptor subsequently associated the choice of wood with her friend's appreciation of carving. In form, the sculpture is also connected with the twenty-one feet high (6.4 metres) Single Form, 1961-4 (BH 325, United Nations, New York, repr. Bowness 1971, pl.71), commissioned as a memorial to Hammarskjöld at the United Nations in New York by the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation.

Single Form (September) was carved from an especially striking piece of figured walnut. On the face, the heartwood rises diagonally to the left, while a dark rippled patterning crosses on the opposing diagonal. This face is slightly convex and carries a perfectly circular depression in the upper right hand corner; its geometric precision acts as a counterpoint to the profile of the work as a whole. The sides are flat and narrow, crisply distinguished from the main faces. Although the walnut is thin for such an expanse, the graining of the curved reverse differs subtly from the front in displaying the concentric rings of the heartwood alongside the rippling. The treatment of the wood may be compared to the scooped out Stringed Figure (Churinga) (BH 280, Hans Bechtler, Zurich, repr. Bowness 1971, pl.26), which was carved in the previous year from a similar piece of walnut; the nearly identical dimensions (815 mm / 32 in. high) and comparable grain suggest that it may be from the same block. Although in good condition, Single Form (September) has some bleaching on the lower left and right of the back; a rectangular fill (at the lower left of the reverse) and a number of plugs in the knots were probably undertaken by the artist before it was polished with shellac. Some of the splits have opened over time, and since acquisition by the gallery these have been filled with PVA and wood flour and the whole has been polished with microcrystalline wax (Tate Gallery Conservation report). The veneered base - to which the sculpture is screwed - was matched to the colour of the walnut; the lower lacquered base is of a type made by the St Ives cabinet maker Robin Nance and recognisable under other Hepworths, such as Figure (Nyanga) (Tate Gallery T01112) and Pierced Form (Epidauros) (Tate Gallery T03141).

The moment at which Single Form (September) was carved has not been pin-pointed precisely in relation to Hammarskjöld's death. Hepworth's assistants Breon O'Casey and Tommy Rowe recalled her carving it in the dance hall of the Palais de Dance, which the sculptor had acquired as a studio by March 1961 (interview with the author, 16 Oct. 1996). Certainly Single Form (September) belongs formally with a number of bronzes all dated to 1961, of which the last was the three metre high Single Form (Memorial) (BH 314, Battersea Park, London, repr. Bowness 1971, pls.56-9), said to have been undertaken following news of the crash (Bowness 1971, p.10). These works were included in Hepworth's exhibition at the Whitechapel in May 1962. There the bronzes Curved Form (Bryher II) (BH 305, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., repr. ibid., pl.47) and Single Form (Chun Quoit) (BH 311, Gimpel Fils, repr. ibid. pl.55) were listed before Single Form (September); this order was followed in the catalogue of the artist's work (ibid.). While the relationship of the Tate's sculpture to the stringed concave plane of Curved Form (Bryher II) seems to rely upon the upright form and central circular hole, the formal relation to Single Form (Chun Quoit) is more obvious as it is close in size and shape to the walnut work and bears an inscribed circle. The bronze is characteristically textured and weighty in contrast to the finely balanced wood.

It has been noted that both associated bronzes are named for local places (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.120). Bryher is one of the Scilly Isles, and Chun Quoit, a Neolithic tomb towards St Just. Alan Wilkinson has proposed a link between the sculpture and the form of the tomb ('Cornwall and the Sculpture of Landscape: 1939-1975' in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.104). Although the subtitle of the Tate's sculpture evokes a moment rather than a place, Hepworth's propensity for seeing her sculpture in the landscape remains important. This may be associated with an element of mystery, as the earlier walnut sculpture Stringed Form (Churinga) derives its subtitle from ritual objects associated with initiation amongst Australian Aborigines. Significantly, a Churinga refers to both the concept of individual identity within the society and, specifically, the flat oval stone or wood sacred objects in which it is embodied. Although the sculptor's use of titles is sometimes ambiguous, this association fits with the formal development of the single upright monolith within her work.

These works came to be associated in retrospect with Hammarskjöld and his death in September 1961. Hepworth told Alan Bowness: 'when I heard of his death, in a kind of despair, I made the ten-foot high Single Form (Memorial). This is the same theme as September, but the hole is moved over and now goes through the form. Memorial was made just to console myself, because I was so upset' (Bowness 1971, p.10). The large sculpture must certainly have been produced at considerable speed, not only because Hepworth had other major projects underway at the same time - such as the submission of the Maquette (Three Forms in Echelon) (see Tate Gallery T00959 and T03142) for the John Lewis Partnership - but also because it was shown in the plaster version at the Whitechapel in May 1962. There, as the sequence of the catalogue indicates, it served as the culmination of recent work. It seems to have been amongst the sculptures to which Bryan Robertson referred in his preface: 'They are dynamic, and instinct with a compressed energy which is quite new ... In each case, the articulation is even more refined and subtle than in earlier forms, and completely synthesized with an expanding sense of form itself' (Barbara Hepworth: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1962 [p.6]).

In her conversation with Bowness, the sculptor reiterated the sequence of works building towards Memorial, stating that 'Dag Hammarskjöld wanted me to do a scheme for the new United Nations building in New York ... We talked about the nature of the site, and about the kind of shapes he liked' (Bowness 1971, p.10). Hepworth implied a direct connection between him and Single Form (September), noting 'we discussed our ideas together but hadn't reached any conclusion' and adding: 'It was such a beautiful piece of wood, and I knew Dag loved wood. He already had two carvings of mine in his collection, and maybe this would have ended up with them' (ibid.). The sculptor last saw the Secretary General in London in June 1961 (Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.155). It may be her statement about his love of wood that encouraged Sally Festing (1995, p.254) to refer to Single Form (September) as 'the sublime piece of walnut ... that Dag had so much praised.'

Hepworth's recollections give a glimpse of Hammarskjöld's concern - despite his other responsibilities - with the artistic environment at the UN as part of the spiritual enrichment of those using the building. An aspect of this is evident in his establishment of a Meditation Room as Roger Lipsey has pointed out (An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, Boston and Shaftesbury 1988, pp.444-60). Of Hepworth's carvings, he bought the pre-war sandalwood Single Form, 1937-8 (BH 103, repr. J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, 1961, pl.103) from her 1956 New York exhibition (Martha Jackson Gallery); he kept it in his UN office and composed a poem related to it which was published posthumously in his book Markings, 1964 (translated by Leif Sjöberg and W.H. Auden, see also Penelope Curtis, 'The Artist in Post-War Britain' in Curtis and Wilkinson, 1994, pp.128-9). He also owned the very recent lignum vitae Hollow Form (Churinga III), 1960 (BH 292, repr. Bowness 1971, pl.36); both works are now in the Dag Hammarskjöld Museum, Backakra, Sweden. The sculptor found in him a kindred spirit, sharing political views on the responsibility of the artist in the community and more broadly the individual within society. Hepworth described Hammarskjöld's 'pure and exact perception of aesthetic principles, as exact as it was over ethical and moral principles. I believe they were, to him, one and the same thing' (quoted in Roger Lipsey, An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, Boston and Shaftesbury 1988, p.458).

Whether or not Hammarskjöld saw Single Form (September), the consequences of his friendship with Hepworth led to the commission for the Single Form, 1961-4 at the United Nations. She recalled this as a surprise, noting that the new Secretary General U Thant 'told me about the last walk he'd had with Dag around the pond, when Dag had said that I was developing an idea which he wanted very badly' (Bowness 1971, p.10). This memory appears to be slightly romanticised. Hammarskjöld had proposed sculptures for the building before his death but, despite their friendship, he was considering Henry Moore as well as Hepworth (Curtis, 'A Chronology of Public Commissions' in Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.155). In 1960, another mutual friend, Herbert Read, had, according to his biographer, 'alerted Moore to the fact that ... Hammarskjöld, if approached correctly, might like to commission a sculpture for the UN building in New York' (James King, The Last Modern: A Life of Herbert Read, 1990, p.296). Moore had already carved the travertine Reclining Figure, 1957-8 (Alan Bowness, ed., Henry Moore Volume 3: Sculpture 1955-64, 1964, LH 416, pls.43-8) for the UNESCO building in Paris. Perhaps aware of this, Hepworth was 'purposeful' in pursuit of the commission (Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.155). Penelope Curtis has enlarged upon the sculptor's own comments to Bowness, detailing the different stages of the UN work, from the initial plan to make an eight foot high carving to the mock-up erected in June 1962 (ibid.). Hepworth declined to visit the site, with which she was already familiar, arguing: 'Knowing how Dag was thinking about world ideas and about ideas in sculpture, when I last saw him in June last year, I feel that it is my duty to keep my ideas dedicated and untrammelled for the final work ... I can only do it by being single-minded' (ibid.). As the official commission was not ratified by the UN until September 1962, Single Form (Memorial) had been exhibited at the Whitechapel without its subtitle or a dedication (although Robertson's preface had made a point of mentioning the concordance between the sculptor's ideas and those of the late Secretary General); these were made public when the sculpture was shown in Battersea Park the following summer (Sculpture: Open-Air Exhibition of Contemporary British and American Works, May-Sept. 1963). The casting of the full size version, undertaken at Morris Singer Ltd, took ten months, and it was unveiled in New York on 11 June 1964. Both of the larger versions had to be reconceived because of the increase in size and for structural reasons. The face of the culminatory work bore the division into six parts which facilitated casting, and which was approximately equivalent to the sections reassembled in Six Forms (2 x 3) (Tate Gallery T03147); both the horizontal divisions and the internal structure were envisaged with the help of a maquette (Artist's estate). Significantly, the two-tier base of Single Form (September) recalls the structure of the fountain outside the UN.

Such a commission was of fundamental importance both to Hepworth's career and to the perception of sculpture as a public medium for the transmission of ideas. Six years after its inauguration, Edwin Mullins proposed a reading of its rhetoric: 'it is a torso, it is a profile with an eye, it is an expanse of space in which the sun rises, it is a blade, it is a human hand ... raised flat in a sign of authority, or of salute, or as a gesture of allegiance' ('Barbara Hepworth', Barbara Hepworth Exhibition 1970, exh. cat. Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan 1970, unpag.). Dore Ashton proclaimed Hepworth's work to be 'a vision of the cosmos' ('Barbara Hepworth, An Appreciation', Barbara Hepworth 'Conversations', exh. cat., Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York 1974, [p.5]). She explored one of the literal readings in seeing the pierced circle as a symbolic eye, related to 'the Western window of the soul, but also the Eastern and primitive eye which mythologically survives all history'; Ashton also believed that the sculpture proved 'that there can be a poetry of exchange between nature and metropolis' (ibid. [p.3]). This connection has been seen differently by Penny Florence, who raised the question: 'What kind of geopolitical and historical gesture is constituted in the transposition of a piece finely balanced between a modern female subject in a remote landscape and prehistory into the quintessential modern cityscape of New York?' ('Barbara Hepworth: the Odd Man Out? Preliminary Thoughts about a Public Artist' in David Thistlewood, ed., Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, 1996, p.31.) An answer lies in the relation of the sculptor to the dedicatee or, more precisely, in the transcription of that relationship into the arena of world politics, so that modernism and the ideals of internationalism were reasserted at a time of Cold War tensions. It may be in this connection that the simple structure of Hepworth's implicitly political sculptures of the late 1930s, such as Hammarskjöld's sandalwood Single Form and Single Form (Eikon) (Tate Gallery T00697), was remade in the broader upright Single Form sculptures of twenty-five years later.

Matthew Gale
March 1998


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