Dame Barbara Hepworth Two Figures (Heroes) 1954

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Artwork details

Artist
Title
Two Figures (Heroes)
Date 1954
Medium Oil paint and graphite on hardboard
Dimensions Support: 1850 x 1220 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980
Reference
T03155

Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T03155 Two Figures (Heroes) 1954

Oil and pencil on hardboard

1830 x 1205 (72 x 42)

Inscribed in pencil 'Barbara Hepworth | 1954' t.l.
Inscribed on the back in pencil over two areas of white paint 'Barbara Hepworth | Two Figures (heroes) | oil Jan 1954 | 72" x 48" ' and 'dedicated to | Paul & John | pilot and navigator, killed February 13th 1953'

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

Exhibited:
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927-1954, Whitechapel Art Gallery, April-June 1954 (198)
Three British Artists: Hepworth, Bacon, Scott, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1954 (not in cat.)
Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings 1937-54, North American tour organised by Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, 1955-6, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, April-May 1955, University of Nebraska Art Galleries, June-Aug., San Francisco Museum of Art, Sept.-Oct., Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, Nov.-Dec., Art Gallery of Toronto, Jan.-Feb. 1956, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, March, Baltimore Museum of Art, April-June 1956 (3, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture, Paintings, Drawings, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, Dec. 1956-Jan. 1957 (31)

Literature:
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.15, repr. in col. p.41
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980-2, 1984, p.125, repr.

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

Painting, in a diversity of forms, was a facet of Barbara Hepworth's output from 1940. She produced a considerable number in which a frieze-like array of figures are represented by a matrix of intersecting straight lines punctuated by areas of strong colour. Two Figures (Heroes), 1954 is an example of this type, which was concentrated around 1952-4 but seems to have begun in 1947 with Drawing for Stone Sculpture, 1947 (Priscilla Beckett, repr. Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, 1966, pl.33) and continued until 1956 with Figures (Sunion), 1956 (Private collection, repr. photograph in the artist's estate). A comparison of the two examples owned by the Tate - one under a foot high and the other life size - serves to emphasise the wide range of scale covered by this body of work.

The painting was made, in large part, using a technique which Hepworth had developed in the 1940s for her nude studies (see Tate Gallery T00269) and hospital pictures (see T02098). A thick white oil ground - probably of household paint - was brushed on to the smooth face of the hardboard to give a hard, textured surface. A thin glaze of brown oil paint was applied and then scraped down, in areas to the white ground. The main design was drawn over the paint in black pencil, probably with the aid of a ruler; sections of the resulting grid were filled in with strong colours - red, black, blue, grey - and a pale grey was washed over some areas. The coincidence of scraped areas with the pencil design demonstrates that both were modified as the artist worked on the painting. That it was framed before it was executed is indicated by splashes on the frame and the absence of paint beneath it.

Though in sound condition, Two Figures has suffered from its past treatment. George Wilkinson, one of Hepworth's last assistants, recalled that after the artist's death the painting was found in the confined space behind the old stage of the former Palais de Dance that had served as her studio since 1961 (interviewed by the author, 14 Oct. 1996); her executors had the film of dirt which covered it removed. Since the establishment of the Barbara Hepworth Museum, it has been on display in her studio and has suffered from the humid conditions that result from the damp atmosphere. It was noted in 1991 that there was some local cleavage and flaking of paint, particularly in the black areas, of which some had been retouched - presumably by the artist - and some was more recent. Abrasion had caused the loss of a small area of paint on the lower right hand side and there were small splashes of white paint on both the frame and the picture surface as a result of decorators working in the studio at some time in the past.

The technique of intersecting lines relates to Cubism, in particular to the later Cubism of Georges Braque. The predominance of long verticals is especially reminiscent of his La Musicienne, 1918 (Kunstmuseum, Basle), which Hepworth could have seen reproduced in the special Cubism number of Art d'Aujourd'hui in May 1953. The suggestion of a continuous line also recalls Klee's conception of drawing as taking a line for a walk, which enjoyed significant popularity among the painters of St Ives in the early 1950s. In post-war Britain both Braque and Klee had come to stand for a more rooted modernism, and their influence on Hepworth may be related to her search for a form of expression that was both human and modern. Her use, in a figurative composition, of the primary colours and rectilinearity associated with Mondrian's abstraction may reflect such a humanising intention. The adaptation of Klee's line to a post-Cubist style, with the filling in of defined areas with strong colour and heavy pencil shading, was particularly characteristic of Ben Nicholson's painting after 1947, though his forms are less rectilinear than Hepworth's. The scraping down of oil glazes over a textured white ground was, similarly, a familiar technique of his. Her style may also relate to contemporary sculpture, in particular to the work of Robert Adams and Henry Moore, which themselves had their roots in Cubism. In Adams's Figure, 1949 (Tate Gallery T03866) the human body is defined by interlocking angular forms, though in three dimensions. Moore had used such forms in the 1930s, but they reached a very public peak in his Time-Life Screen in 1953-4 (Time-Life Building, Bond Street, London, repr. Alan Bowness, Henry Moore Sculpture and Drawings: vol.2, 1949-54, 2nd ed. 1965, pl.74, LH344).

The fusion of bodies in Two Figures had been anticipated in such works as Bicentric Form, 1949 (Tate Gallery N05932) and may be seen to symbolise human relations, which were a dominant theme of her painting and sculpture. The artist related the idea of the group to her pre-war abstract work: 'It is an extension of the same idea which started in November 1934, but extended gradually from within outwards; through the family group and its close knit relationship out to larger group related architecture' (Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952). Thus the classic Cubist interpenetration of forms becomes a symbol of the cohesion of people: of the family unit in Family Group and of the two 'heroes' of Two Figures.

The collapse of Hepworth's marriage to Ben Nicholson in December 1950 made the family an especially emotive theme and it is even more poignantly present in Two Figures which, as the inscription on the back makes clear, was dedicated to Paul Skeaping, the artist's son by her first husband, John Skeaping. Paul was an RAF pilot flying patrols over Malaya and died, along with his navigator, in an air crash in Thailand in February 1953. Though it is most likely that it was accidental, it has been suggested that they were the victims of a terrorist bomb (John Skeaping, Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, 1977, p.207). Since the age of nine, Paul had lived with his father, but he spent extended periods with Hepworth in Cornwall. Her close friend Margaret Gardiner recorded that his death was 'a lasting grief' to the artist (Barbara Hepworth: A Memoir, 1982, p.18), who, in addition to Two Figures, carved a Madonna and Child for St Ives parish church in his memory (BH 193, repr. Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, 1970, New ed. 1978, p.64).

The left hand person in Two Figures appears to hold a smaller picture, the forms of which echo the main image. The emphasis placed upon this detail by the thorough scraping away of the paint suggests that it is an important element of the work. The motif of a picture-within-a-picture has been used in the past as a means of including figures otherwise absent from the scene depicted; in particular portraits of the dead often appear in family groups. If Hepworth used this traditional device, the painting might serve, like Family Group and many of the other similar works, to reinforce the importance of family ties.

Chris Stephens
March 1998