Dame Barbara Hepworth



Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Alabaster and slate
Object: 210 × 147 × 80 mm
Lent from a private collection 2016
On long term loan


Figure 1933 is a small, pierced stone sculpture that follows a female form, with identifiable ‘head’ and ‘breasts’ above the central piercing. On the head is an etched ‘eye’, and these relief elements to the sculpture become more or less prominent in different lights (something Hepworth was to explore in the photography of her work). Figure is one of Hepworth’s earliest pierced stone carvings, preceded by Pierced Form 1932 (destroyed) and Profile 1933 (whereabouts unknown). It was made in a pivotal year for Hepworth, as she began sharing her studio in Hampstead with the artist Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) and came increasingly in contact with artists on the continent through Nicholson’s frequent trips to Paris. For both artists, the years 1932–4 and the works they produced during this period are characterised by their close working and personal relationship. Shared motifs or techniques include the use of dots or circles (Lewison 1993, p.214) and, for Hepworth specifically, the incorporation of two-dimensional pictorial elements into her sculpture, such as the eye of Figure.

The piercing has been interpreted as reflecting Hepworth’s desire to give her work a ‘spiritual inner life’, influenced by her belief in Christian Science, by which the opening up of the material form of the sculpture to incorporate space would transform her work into a ‘keystone’ for universal forces (Lucy Kent, ‘An act of Praise: Religion and the Work of Barbara Hepworth’, in Curtis & Stephens 2015, p.39). More directly, though not unrelated, the piercing has sexual connotations, alluded to in other works from the period, such as Two Forms (Tate T07123) and Standing Figure 1934 (private collection). Nicholson and Hepworth had begun their relationship in 1931, and were living together at Hepworth’s studio at 7 The Mall in Hampstead from 1932. Works made by both artists were displayed in the studio in an informal setting, with smaller sculptures moved around to create a changing artistic mise-en-scène (Lee Beard, ‘Reflections on a Relationship: Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, The Early Years’, in Curtis & Stephens 2015, p.21). These biomorphic works pre-empt the move toward abstraction Hepworth made later in the 1930s, but show the enduring significance of the human figure for the artist. Figure was exhibited as Composition at the Lefevre Gallery, London in 1933 an exhibition Hepworth shared with Nicholson and was also included in her retrospectives at Temple Newsam, Leeds in April 1943 (as Carving) and at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in 1954. It features in monographs on the artist by Herbert Read (plate 27) and J.P. Hodin (no. 47).

Further reading
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London 2001.
Penelope Curtis & Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2015.

Inga Fraser
July 2016

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