Dame Barbara Hepworth Torso 1928

Artwork details

Artist
Title
Torso
Date 1928
Medium Hoptonwood stone on wooden base
Dimensions Object: 362 x 171 x 102 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980
Reference
T03128

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03128 Torso 1928

BH 12

Hoptonwood stone 360 x 170 x 100 (14 1/4 x 6 3/4 x 4) on poplar base 42 x 305 x 187 (1 5/8 x 13 3/4 x 7 3/8)

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

Provenance:
Acquired from the artist by A.J. McNeill Reid, 1928; sold by his widow Sotheby's 22 April 1970 (96, repr.), bt Gimpel Fils and the artist jointly

Exhibited:
Sculpture, Engravings and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, William Morgan, John Skeaping, Beaux Arts Gallery, London, June 1928 (7)
Sculpture, Drawings and Drypoints by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, and Engravings and Drawings by William E.C. Morgan, Alex Reid and Lefevre, Glasgow, Sept. 1928 (39)
Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Exhibition 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, April-June 1954 (5)
Carving Mountains: Modern Stone Sculpture in England 1907-37, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, March-April 1998 (19, repr. p.50)

Literature:
Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, pp.ix, x-xi, pl.8
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.161 no.12
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.10, repr. p.23
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, London 1984, p.110, repr.

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

In its simplicity, Torso embodies the ideals of the 'new movement' in sculpture, with which the works of Barbara Hepworth, John Skeaping, Henry Moore and others were identified in the 1920s. These ideals were opposed to the practice of craftsmen transferring sculptors' models into stone and adopted instead the technical honesty of direct carving; Michelangelo was cited as a precedent, 'removing the superfluous in a block of stone in order to reach the essential' (Stanley Casson, Sculpture of Today, 1939, p.9). Direct carving represented a rebellion against the nineteenth century academic tradition and was associated with the modernism of Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska in Britain and Brancusi, Zadkine and others in Paris. Hepworth - by Skeaping's account (Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, 1977, p.72) - began to carve stone in Rome in 1925-6 under his guidance and that of Giovanni Ardini the marmista (marble craftsman), whose experience she also recalled (Read 1952, section 1).

An instructive comparison may be drawn between Torso, carved in Hoptonwood stone (a Derbyshire limestone), and the bronze Standing Woman, Right Hand Raised, 1925 (no BH no.; repr. Post-War and Contemporary British Art, Christie's, 23 Oct. 1996, lot.41, repr. p.32) made during her Italian period. The restraint of this earlier work reflects the monumentality of Quattrocento art which Hepworth later remembered admiring (Read 1952, section 1) and which was influential on other Rome Scholars such as Thomas Monnington. The modelling technique shows Hepworth's only gradual transition to carving. A sympathy for stone and a retention of the form of the block was established in Torso, with the shallow delineation of the limbs serving simultaneously as a demonstration of skill and an acknowledgement of the quality of the material. Although she and Skeaping also carved exotic stones, the use of an indigenous limestone more commonly used for architectural details reinforced a craft sensibility.

Recent interpretations of Hepworth's concentration upon the nude - notably by Anne Wagner (' "Miss Hepworth's Stone Is a Mother" ' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, 1996, pp.53-74) - have stressed the conjunction of her experience as woman and her exploration of the female body as a subject. In works such as Torso a simple actuality - the broad hips and small breasts common to most of Hepworth's nudes - displaced the conventional idealisation in many comparable works by men. Nevertheless, the objectified and truncated female nude remained a quintessential sculptural theme epitomised by Hellenistic Aphrodites and re-addressed by Rodin's presentation of the fragmentary body as complete work. Gaudier-Brzeska's slim marble Torso, 1914 (Tate Gallery T03731, repr. Evelyn Silber, Gaudier-Brzeska: Life and Art, 1996, pls.76-7, no.61), at that time in the V&A, exemplified a pre-war attempt to re-integrate this theme with direct carving, and Hepworth seemed to take up this thread in a naturalistically treated white marble Torso also of 1928 (BH 14c, Hiscox Holdings Ltd. repr. Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1994, p.23, no.4). In the 1950s, Herbert Read went as far as to suggest that the Tate's Torso was 'conceivably a derivative of the lost masterpiece of Praxiteles', the Aphrodite of Knidos, but he qualified this with an absorption of Mexican, Egyptian and Renaissance sculpture (Read 1952, p.ix). Indeed, in the warm grey-brown of the stone and Hepworth's characteristic tendency towards frontality Torso was opposed to classical values. Even an element of stylisation was introduced in the detail of the triangular navel, which recurred in Contemplative Figure, 1928 (BH 15, location unknown, repr. ibid., pl.4 and Penelope Curtis, 'Early Hepworth: New Images for Old', Burlington, vol.137, no.1113, Dec.1995, p.848, fig.80).

In common with many of her contemporaries Hepworth was also drawn to sources outside the classical European tradition. Torso may be specifically compared to the unique Limestone Statue of a Woman, c.1073-1056 BC (British Museum WA 124963) from Nineveh which was acquired by the British Museum in the mid 1920s. More broadly, a commonly held interest may be reflected in the evident debt to Archaic Greek Kouroi demonstrated by Skeaping's contemporary Torso of a Boy in Detached Relief, 1928 (Snape Maltings, Suffolk, repr. Sculpture, Drawings and Drypoints by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, and Engravings and Drawings by William E.C. Morgan, exh. cat., Alex Reid and Lefevre, Glasgow, 1928, no.1). In March of the same year, by contrast, Eric Gill showed his female torso Mankind, 1927-8 (Tate Gallery N05388) at the Goupil Gallery; although a product of direct carving in the same Hoptonwood stone, it epitomised an attenuation and idealisation of the female form quite distinct from Hepworth's approach.

Torso must have been completed before June 1928, as it was included in both of Hepworth's and Skeaping's joint exhibitions that summer. The foreword of their Glasgow show drew attention to her 'statuettes and groups in marble and stone ... carved directly and freely' (ibid.). It was at this moment - and as a significant measure of confidence in her work - that the dealer Alexander Reid acquired the sculpture. While in his collection Torso was mounted on a narrow circular base (repr. Read 1952, pl.8). In contrast to the present rectangular wooden base, which seems to date from the work's re-acquisition by the artist, this encouraged viewing in the round.

Matthew Gale
April 1997


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