Dame Barbara Hepworth

Bicentric Form


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Object: 1590 × 522 × 330 mm, Weight: 406 kg
Purchased 1950

Display caption

Explaining its title, Hepworth described this work as 'a fusion of two figures into one sculptural entity'. She saw it as a development from works made up of separate elements, such as Three Forms, 1935 (on display in this room). More specifically, it grew out of the drawings she made of interlocking figures. This fusion of figures could be seen as a symbolic expression of her interest in individual and social relationships. One writer described such carvings as 'unmistakably archetypal',relating them to the ancient standing stones near Hepworth's home in Cornwall.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Bicentric Form 1949


Blue marble

1587 x 483 x 311 (62 1/2 x 19 x 12 1/4); weight: 400 kg

Purchased from the Lefevre Gallery (Cleve Fund) 1950

New Sculpture and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, Lefevre Gallery, London, Feb. 1950 (1, as Biocentric Form)
XXV Venice Biennale, June-Oct. 1950 (British Pavilion 83)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (57)
St Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery, Tate Gallery, London, Feb.-March 1985 (78)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Dec. 1994 (41, repr. in col. p.102)

J.P. Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth', Les Arts Plastiques, vol.4, no.3, July-Aug. 1950, pp.207-8
David Lewis, 'The Sculptures of Barbara Hepworth', Eidos, vol.2, Sept-Oct. 1950, p.30, repr. p.25
Barbara Hepworth, 'Rhythm and Space' in Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, between pls.92 and 93, repr. pls.135-7b
J.P. Hodin, The Dilemma of Being Modern, London 1956, pp.133-4
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, pp.20,167 no.160, repr.
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, p.278
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, London 1982, p.15, repr. p.27
Joanne Prosyniuk (ed.), Modern Arts Criticism: A Biographical and Critical Guide to Painters, Sculptors, Photographers and Architects from the Beginning of the Modern Era to the Present, II, 1992, p.263 (as Biocentric Form)
Michael Tooby, An Illustrated Companion to the Tate St Ives, London 1993, p.45, repr. in col.
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, London 1995, pp.184, 196

'Two Talented Women', Picture Post, 11 March 1950, pp.23-4
David Lewis, 'Sculptures of Barbara Hepworth', Listener, 27 July 1950, p.121
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture and Drawings, exh. cat., Wakefield City Art Gallery, 1951, p.27
Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, 1966, p.20, pl.6
A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.109, repr. p.103, pl.75
Simon Wilson, British Art: From Holbein to the Present Day, p.173

Bicentric Form is one of several monumental figure sculptures made by Hepworth at the end of the 1940s and in the early 1950s. Their semi-abstract style, a synthesis perhaps of her more pure abstraction and the figure drawings of the preceding years (q.v.), came to characterise her work of the period. That the works coincided with an especially successful moment in her career helped to ensure their prominence in the establishment of her reputation. Bicentric Form was a central feature of her exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1950, displayed at the entrance to the British pavilion, and the comparable, though larger, two figure Contrapuntal Forms, 1950 (BH 165, Harlow Art Trust) was her major contribution to the Festival of Britain in the following year. Hepworth's success was also reflected at that time by her acquisition of a new studio, Trewyn, in the heart of St Ives in September 1949. From that date on all of her sculptures were made there; it is most likely that Bicentric Form was one of the works which she began in Carbis Bay and completed at Trewyn. It was the first of her works to be acquired by the Tate and remained the only example of her sculpture in the collection until 1960.

The artist told the Tate Gallery that Bicentric Form 'was carved during a period when my main interest was in the fusion of the "two form" idea, so that it would be fair to describe [it] as a fusion of two figures into one sculptural entity. I think, from a purely abstract point of view, it was a logical and inevitable development from the separate forms in association' (Letter, 7 Feb. 1958, Tate Gallery cataloguing files). Earlier, she had explained how that synthesis of figures was related to the nude drawings she had been producing since 1947, such as Two Figures with Folded Arms, 1947 (Tate Gallery T00269). She wrote in 1952 that the drawing of groups of figures led her, 'to renewed study of anatomy and structures as well as the structure of integrated groups of two or more figures. I began to consider a group of separate figures as a single sculptural entity, and I started working on the idea of two or more figures as a unity, blended into one carved and rhythmic form'. Bicentric Form, she specified, was one of many carvings on that theme. (Read 1952, section 5).

It is unclear whether the two figures from which Bicentric Form was developed were seen by the artist as two distinct individuals or two views of a single person. Many of the pictures to which she related the sculpture were, as with Two Figures with Folded Arms, multiple aspects of the same model. Alan Bowness has suggested that the sculpture may be associated with the drawing Interlocking Forms, 1950 (Will Lynch, repr. Bowness 1966, pl.18), which also shows two images of the same figure (ibid., p.20). The contemporaneous sculpture Biolith (BH 155, Jonathan Clark, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.155) was clearly based upon a Cubist-like double view of the head of the model identified as Lisa. However, one could also relate Bicentric Form to such drawings as Three Groups (Blue and Yellow Ground), 1949 (John Winter, repr. Read 1952, pl.127a), in which male and female figures face each other in an embrace. Intimacy between male and female was an aspect of other works of the period: both Two Figures, 1943 (BH 120, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.120) and Contrapuntal Forms are clearly gendered and, it has been suggested, the Giacometti-like incised hand of The Cosdon Head, 1949 (BH 157, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, repr. Read 1952, pl.117) may be seen as an intimate caress (Chris Stephens, 'From Constructivism to Reconstruction: Hepworth in the 1940s' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, 1996, p.151). While such works have been considered in light of the complexity of the artist's own personal relationships at that time, in particular the gradual collapse of her marriage to Ben Nicholson (Festing 1995, p.183), she also viewed human interaction in more general and symbolic ways.

The physical and spatial relations between figures was a dominant concern in much of Hepworth's work and especially at that moment. The development from the balance of abstract forms in works such as Discs in Echelon (Tate Gallery T03132) to the association of human figures represents a significant shift in emphasis. The change, which must be seen as part of a return to figuration by many artists after World War II, was witnessed most dramatically in her depictions of operating theatres (q.v.). The artist suggested that these studies demonstrated how formal harmony was significant of co-operative action and, by extension, of social cohesion. The idea of a collective society and, specifically, the question of the artist's role within it was a major concern of Hepworth's (Stephens 1996). In her work the relationship between a figure and the landscape, or between two or more figures, can be seen to address these issues. As their titles suggest, the organic synthesis of two entities into one in Bicentric Form or the harmonious deportment of a group as in Contrapuntal Forms illustrate the themes of intimate and social co-operation.

At the time of Bicentric Form's exhibition at the Venice Biennale, David Lewis, then Hepworth's secretary, identified the group of works to which it belonged as 'unmistakably archetypal'. He wrote: 'Their lithic forms are synonymous with the most ancient of man's symbols, the monolith, lonely and foreboding, a form which she has arrived at intellectually and unconsciously, the latter, absorbed from the cromlechs and stone circles and granite obelisks of the Cornish landscape of Penwith, affirming its rectitude' (Lewis Sept-Oct. 1950, p.30). While his reading of Bicentric Form as a single figure is in contrast to Hepworth's description, he echoed her in discussing the works in terms of man's existential state. Like the ancient stones, he said,

these carvings stand as solitary testimony to man's contemporary failure to achieve harmony between his universe and his being, between the changing and the unchangeable; like them, in the still security of their solitariness, bound by immutable laws, they testify towards the achievement of that essential relationship, the only ultimate solution.
The association of Hepworth's figures with the 'archetypal' and the suggestion that her response to the ancient monuments of Cornwall was 'unconscious' reflect the widespread interest in the theories of Carl Jung among artists in St Ives after the war. Parallels were drawn between their use of landscape and earlier traditions through the Jungian concept of the 'Collective Unconscious', a race memory that operates across generations. The belief in such an idea underlies Lewis's proposition that the absorption of ancient monuments invested in Hepworth's work possessed a certain 'rectitude' because it was unconscious. This was part of a wider strategy to establish an art form that was at once figurative and absolute - a dialectic also proposed by Herbert Read ('Barbara Hepworth', La Biennale di Venezia, no.3, Jan. 1951, pp.13-14) - as a humanist answer to the relationship of man to the universe. Such a use of primitive cultures and abstract ideas is a feature of many attempts to counter modern alienation, particularly after the war when the absolutes upon which the abstraction of the 1930s had been based were under scrutiny.

Hepworth's return to figuration received a mixed reception. Patrick Heron, writing in the New Statesman, welcomed the 'human form' which he saw 'press[ing] through the skin of the lop-sided sphere'. Hepworth, he said, was 'enhancing, not diluting, the quality and power of her own abstraction. The addition of an element of representation has resulted in her abstract rhythm being elevated from a geometrical to a poetic condition' ('The Return of the Image', New Statesman, vol.39 no.996, 18 Feb. 1950, p.187). In contrast, John Berger insisted that, despite its human forms, her work still lacked a human presence, illustrating his point with the recollection that when 'Contrapuntal Forms arrived at the South Bank for the Festival [of Britain], the workmen who unloaded them spent a long time searching for an opening or a hinge because they believed that the real figures must be inside' ('Sculptural Vacuum', New Statesman, vol.47 no.1206, 17 April 1954, p.498). Hepworth's showing at the 1950 Venice Biennale, which was dominated by Bicentric Form and Biolith, was received with similar equivocation. Following Moore's success in 1948, there was little interest in her display, and the idea of Hepworth as his follower was established.

The origin of Bicentric Form in two figures is reflected by its dual aspect. The figure and its integral base were carved from a single piece of limestone of varying colour. Vertical traces of cutting on the base show that its sides mark the parameters of the original block. There are numerous faults in the stone, including a long crack across one 'face', and several chips have been lost from the edges. There are two areas of about 10 mm. of buff-coloured fill on the head. The sculpture's form may, to some extent, have been dictated by the conditions within which it was made. The scale and intractable materials of many of the works of that period, and the success and growing reputation which they reflect, forced Hepworth to take on assistants for the first time. To cope with the volume of work in the run-up to the Venice Biennale and the Festival of Britain in 1951 she employed the artists John Wells (1949, 1950-1) and Terry Frost (1950-2). In 1949 she also took on Denis Mitchell, who remained her senior assistant until 1959 and became a successful sculptor himself as a result. The planar style of Bicentric Form became a characteristic of many of Hepworth's stone carvings and may have been influenced by her need to give the assistants directions by drawing on the stone, which imposed an inevitable linearity on the resultant design.

Bicentric Form appears to be a reworking of the slightly earlier carving in mahogany, Bimorphic Theme, 1948-9 (BH 152, Private Collection, USA, repr. Sculpture in the Home, exh. cat., Arts Council, 1953, no.19). The smaller scale (788 mm / 31 in. high) and different material gives the earlier piece a sinuous elegance that contrasts with the emphasis on planes and mass in the Tate's work. This may reflect the fact that the wood would have been carved by Hepworth herself and used, perhaps, as a guide for her assistants when carving the more resilient stone. The similarity and differences between the two works may thus indicate her attempts to develop a successful workshop practice.

Chris Stephens
March 1998

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