Dame Barbara Hepworth

Figure (Nyanga)


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Elm on plywood base
Object (including base): 908 × 571 × 535 mm (34.6kg)
Presented by the artist 1969

Display caption

Hepworth said that when she was carving this sculpture she was preoccupied with ‘thoughts about Africa and the United Nations’, explaining that her concern for human suffering and dignity had on occasion lent a certain poignancy to her works. It was linked more specifically to her sense of sorrow after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, when South African police opened fire on demonstrators, killing 69 people. The sculpture appears to represent a human head, heroic in stature and proportion, and emblematic of the universality of suffering.

Gallery label, November 2015

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T01112 Figure (Nyanga) 1959-60

BH 273

Elm 845 x 570 x 290 (33 1/4 x 22 1/2 x 11 1/2) on black lacquered plywood base 60 x 535 x 355 (23 5/8 x 21 x 14); weight: 34.6 kg

Presented by the artist in memory of Sir Herbert Read 1969

Barbara Hepworth, Galerie Charles Lienhard, Zürich, Oct. 1960 (18, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth, Gimpel Fils, May-June 1961 (11, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, Whitechapel Art Gallery, May-June 1962 (51, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth, BC European tour, 1964-6, Kunstforeningen, Copenhagen, Sept.-Oct. 1964 (19), Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Nov.-Dec. 1964 (20), Ateneum, Helsinki, Jan.-Feb. 1965 (19), Utstilling I Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, March (19), Rietveld Pavilion, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo, May-July (24, repr.)
Reliefs, Sculpture, Marlborough London Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1966 (31, repr.)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, April-May 1968 (101, repr. p.33)
Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Dec. 1994, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Feb.-April 1995, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, May-Aug. (63, repr. in col. p.78)

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, 1961, p.170 no.273 (repr.)
Barbara Hepworth: An Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1962, p.10
Michael Shepherd, Barbara Hepworth, 1963, p.40, repr. pl.15
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1968-9, 1969, p.13
David Fraser Jenkins, Barbara Hepworth: A Guide to the Tate Gallery Collection at London and St Ives, Cornwall, 1982, p.18, repr. p.34

Herbert Read, Contemporary British Art, 2nd ed. 1964, pl.4
Alan Bowness, Modern Sculpture, 1965, p.123
J.P. Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth et la tradition classique', XXe Siécle, vol.27, no.25, June 1965, p.102
A.M. Hammacher, Modern English Sculpture, 1967, p.89 (col.)

Figure (Nyanga) was carved from elm which was much prized for large scale sculptures, as Barbara Hepworth later demonstrated with Hollow Form with White (Tate Gallery T00960). It has a warm honey colour and a broad grain. This is especially dramatically exposed on the reverse of the half log of Figure (Nyanga) , where the fine pattern of the grain indicates the limits of the heart wood and the intrusion of sapwood. The core of the trunk runs down the other face, establishing a column of fine knots, one of which has been carefully filled with appropriately angled grain. Characteristically the front is the most complex face, although a pronounced curvature in the form is exaggerated by the undercutting of the reverse and the twisting rhythm of the left side. The hole near the top uses a spiralling form which follows the natural line of the grain to draw the eye in, it then penetrates the wood with a slightly conical opening to the rear; this may have suggested Michael Shepherd's observation of the passage from 'calm curve to strong counter-rhythm' (Shepherd 1963, p.40). The smooth interior of the hole is slightly whitened with paint, which sets up a contrast with the rich colouring of the main waxed surfaces. The transition from one surface treatment to the other is gradual on the rear face, a process also practised on such guarea carvings as Corinthos (Tate Gallery T00531). A very substantial crack, c.260 mm (10 1/4 in) long by c.10 mm (3/8 in) wide, runs down the back face. This presumably opened during the process of carving, as - like the knot on the front - it has been filled with wood with carefully matching grain. The thickness of the block makes it prone to splitting, although the sculptor claimed that this could be avoided if allowed to acclimatise: 'I have had no trouble with the wood all this decade' (8 May 1969, Tate Gallery Catalogue Files). It is held on the shallow box base with a steel bolt and a locating pin, which prevents it swivelling. As indicated by Dicon Nance (interview with the author, 12 Oct. 1996), the base is recognisable as one of those made by his brother, the craftsman Robin Nance; it appears to be one of the earliest examples of a type regularly used by the sculptor, and found under works such as Pierced Form (Epidauros) (Tate Gallery T03141).

It was not Hepworth's practice to make drawings for carvings, preferring to respond to the form of the block. Nevertheless, she suggested that several drawings bore 'a close relationship in thought' to the carving, while adding: 'As you know, I very rarely draw a sculpture direct; but the research is there' (8 May 1969, Tate Gallery Catalogue Files). The drawings to which she referred (Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, 1966, pls. 43-6, 50-2) were contemporary with the carving but generally relate to the generation of form through linear progressions found in the stringed sculptures of 1956-8, such as Orpheus (Tate Gallery T00955). Through its main title a figurative element is suggested in the sculpture, which may encourage a literal reading of the form as a head.

In the introduction to Hepworth's 1962 Whitechapel retrospective, Bryan Robertson specified that 'Nyanga is a private act of attrition for the more inhuman incidents in Africa and at Sharpsville [sic]'. The sculptor herself confirmed this context for the work in her letter to the Tate: 'I was much involved in thought about Africa and the United Nations and my many friends who were doing what they could. ... From time to time, a deep involvement on my part, in human suffering and human dignity has brought a certain poignancy into the works ... [as] happened in the 30s and in the 40s' (8 May 1969, Tate Gallery Catalogue Files). The incident at Sharpeville township, was the massacre on 21 March 1960 by the South African authorities of seventy-one blacks objecting to the 'Pass Laws' limiting freedom of movement. Albert Lutuli, president of the African National Congress, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December as a symbol of international solidarity with the campaign of peaceful protest. This focused international attention on the official Apartheid system of racial segregation and initiated three decades of protest.

The sculptor expressed her political commitment to peace and social reconstruction through support for such organisations as the United Nations Association and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It seems likely that she also associated the sculpture retrospectively with the efforts of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations and a close friend, to establish peace in Central Africa. The independence of former French colonies was achieved in 1958; Gabon was amongst them, and Nyanga is its southern most province. In 1960, neighbouring Congo passed directly from Belgian colonial rule to civil war as Katanga province seceded. United Nations peace-keeping troops were deployed and, in mid 1961, they mounted a controversial action to reintegrate Katanga. Hammarskjöld had misgiving and was travelling to negotiate with the rebel leader Moise Tschombe when he was killed in an air crash on 18 September 1961 near Ndola in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hepworth had been deeply inspired by Hammarskjöld's ideas and was shocked by his death; she made an enlarged development from Single Form (September) (Tate Gallery T03143) as a memorial to him in New York in 1963.

Through the special circumstances of its donation, Figure (Nyanga) also became associated with Hepworth's friend the poet and critic Sir Herbert Read, who died on 12 June 1968. The sculptor told the Tate: 'As you perhaps realise, this was one of the sculptures Herbert Read had a very deep affection for, from the moment I carved it' (8 May 1969, Tate Gallery Catalogue Files). His opportunity to see it soon after completion arose when he addressed the Penwith Society of Artists on 23 September 1961, on the occasion of the opening of their new gallery. He brought news of participation in the CND 'sit-down' in Trafalgar Square on 17 September in protest against inter-continental missiles. This action occurred the day before Hammarskjöld's death, binding the two events together. Following Read's visit, Hepworth wrote of being 'sick and desolate inside me over D.H'. She also indicated that she had encouraged Read to choose a work for his house, Stonegrave, but commented 'I felt at a loss when you said you did not like texture in bronze - & I expect I shut up like the proverbial clam' (letter to Read, 8 Oct. 1961, Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.). His objection gave rise to a debate between them over the merits of bronze, in which Hepworth had to defend her use of producing plasters for casting - to meet demand and for strength on travelling exhibitions - in the light of her pre-war commitment to 'truth to materials'. That the sculptor dedicated a wood carving to his memory seems to take account of this debate.

Hepworth's Figure (Nyanga) was the first of four gifts celebrating Read's life; the others were Naum Gabo's Linear Construction No.2, 1970-1 (Tate Gallery T01105), Ben Nicholson's March 63 (Artemission), 1963 (T01118) and Henry Moore's Upright Form (Knife Edge), 1966, (T01172). Responding to the sale of the poet's archive to the University of Victoria, British Columbia, both Hepworth and Nicholson promised their papers to the Tate Gallery Archive. She and Moore also celebrated Read's memory by jointly donating Patrick Heron's Portrait of Herbert Read, 1950 (repr. in col. Mel Gooding, Patrick Heron, 1994, p.72) to the National Portrait Gallery.

Matthew Gale
March 1998

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