Dame Barbara Hepworth

Reclining Figures (St Rémy)


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 455 × 1042 mm
Presented by the Barbara Hepworth Estate 2017


Reclining Figures (St Rémy) 1958 is a long landscape-format canvas painted predominantly in blue and white paint; its image broadly suggests the shape of the reclining human form. A layer of ultramarine oil paint, which remains visible at the corners, appears to have been laid directly on the canvas. White paint has been overlaid on this and applied energetically with a broad brush so that the blue paint has been dragged up and mixed with it. A horizontal hour-glass-like shape is suggested by broader, longer strokes and by flowing graphite lines, especially in the upper right section. The title suggests that this might represent a pair or group of reclining figures and the contours of this shape can be likened to other studies by Hepworth of nudes resting on one side. White paint has been rubbed back in the centre of the painting to reveal the darker blue paint underneath. Smudges of Indian red help further define the shape. In some areas the thickly-applied white paint has been scraped with a palette knife, for instance in the series of stepped lines to the left and in the centre. Pencil has been used to create groups of horizontal and vertical lines, as well as some enclosing lines at the right. In some areas pencil marks cross to create a loose cross-hatching that is comparable also with Hepworth’s use of string in her sculptures to shape three-dimensional space.

The subtitle of this painting refers to the place Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Hepworth frequently gave her works titles or subtitles after they were made, and place names were often chosen because of retrospective connections between a work and her memories of an experience in a certain place. Hepworth had visited Saint-Rémy twenty-five years earlier with her then husband Ben Nicholson (1894–1982) as part of a longer visit also to Dieppe, Paris and Avignon during the Easter of 1933. Hepworth later wrote of her experiences of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: ‘after a bus ride we walked up the hill and encountered at the top a sea of olive trees receding behind the ancient arch on the plateau, and human figures sitting, reclining, walking, and embracing at the foot of the arch, grouped in rhythmic relation to the far distant undulating hills and mountain rocks’ (in Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, n.p.). Hepworth described having made her last naturalistic drawings of the landscape there, including St Rémy: Mountains and Trees I 1933 (British Museum, London).

During this trip Hepworth and Nicholson also visited the studio of the sculptor Jean Arp (1886–1966) in the Meudon suburb of Paris. Although they didn’t meet the sculptor, Hepworth especially recognised the importance of seeing Arp’s work, which combined landscape and human forms. In 1952 she described the impact on her own work: ‘I began to imagine the earth rising and becoming human. I speculated as to how I was to find my own identification, as a human being and a sculptor, with the landscape around me.’ (Ibid.) Hepworth’s collage St Rémy 1933 (private collection) includes at its centre a reclining figure in a biomorphic style similar to Arp’s work of the early 1930s. Reclining Figures (St Rémy) was finished by June 1958, when it was included in a solo exhibition at Gimpel Fils, London. Though they had divorced in 1951, Hepworth was unsettled by the departure of Nicholson for Switzerland in the spring of 1958, which possibly further explains her reminiscence of this trip (marking a key point in her relationship with Nicholson) when she was making this work.

The theme of the reclining figure reappears in Hepworth’s work throughout her career. The pencil and charcoal drawing Recumbent Nude 1929 (private collection) is one of the earliest examples. The subject reappears in sculptural form in her early alabaster carvings, including Reclining Figure 1933 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.), Large and Small Form 1934 (Pier Art Centre, Stromness, Orkney) and Mother and Child 1934 (Tate T06676). Of her work around 1934 Hepworth wrote that she was especially ‘absorbed in the relationships in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tensions between the forms’. (Ibid.) She seems to have been particularly interested in the motif again from around 1946, at the height of her exploration of the convergence of the human figure and the landscape. She wrote of this period: ‘the forms took on a more human aspect – forms separated as standing or reclining elements, or linked and pulled together as groups’. (Ibid.) Hepworth also studied the pose in life drawings in the years which followed, resulting in work such as Two Women in the Sun 1949 (Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia), and Three Reclining Figures (Prussian Blue) (private collection) and Recumbent Figures (private collection), both 1951. In each of these the female nude reclines on one side propped on one elbow. The oil and pencil Forms (West Penwith) 1958 (Tate T00700) and associated bronze Reclining Form (Trewyn) 1959 (multiple versions) show abstracted versions of this posture. Forms (West Penwith) was exhibited alongside Reclining Figures (St Rémy) when it was first shown in June 1958.

The reclining figure often takes on a cool and sculptural quality in Hepworth’s work so that it resembles a landscape laid before a horizon or sky. Such a union of multiple elements occurs in Reclining Figures (St Rémy), which implies the fusion of two bodies, as well as between the human body and shapes of natural elements, such as land, sea or perhaps even sky. Made using especially fluent media of paint and pencil, furthermore, this work also particularly expresses the life force, growth and energy not only of the reclining figure and natural world, but also of the artist herself. Hepworth described at this time how boundaries between figure, landscape and artist were broken down in her work. A poem she wrote in 1957 began: ‘You are I and I am the landscape. / I am hollow form and the form is time.’ (Bowness 2015, p.116.)

Hepworth’s paintings have been the subject of less critical attention than her sculptures. Her paintings of the 1950s form a small and disparate group and few authors have considered the role of painting within Hepworth’s wider artistic development at this time. Hepworth herself, however, acknowledged how she used drawing and painting at this time to explore new forms and ideas. Around 1959 she wrote, ‘In drawing, [I] like to work from life in order to find essences of structure and movement – and alternate this with drawing (using colour) as an exploration of form and space; – starting with nothing and working line of colour leads to new forms and become alive.’ (Ibid., p.130.)

Further reading
J.P. Hodin, ‘Barbara Hepworth: A Classic Artist’, Quadrum, no.8, 1960, illustrated p.80.
Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth: Works in the Tate Collection and the Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives, 1999, cat. no.43, illustrated pp.174–5.
Sophie Bowness (ed.), Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, London 2015.

Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens
amended by Rachel Smith
January 2017

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Catalogue entry

Reclining Figure (St Rémy) 1958
Oil, ink and pencil on canvas
460 x 1044 (18 1/8 x 41 1/8)
Inscribed on backing board in red crayon in another hand 'BARBARA HEPWORTH | RECLINING FIGURES ST REMY 1958' top centre, and 'SIGNED ON BACK OF CANVAS' lower centre
On loan from the artist's estate to the Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives
Recent Works by Barbara Hepworth, Gimpel Fils, June 1958 (Drawings for Sculpture 15, as '1958: reclining figures St Rémy')
?Hepworth, Galerie Chalette, New York, Oct.-Nov. 1959 (no number)
J.P. Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth: A Classic Artist', Quadrum, no.8, 1960, p.80, repr.
Displayed in the artist's studio, Barbara Hepworth Museum, St Ives
Reclining Figure (St Rémy) was first exhibited in Barbara Hepworth's solo exhibition at Gimpel Fils in mid 1958 alongside Forms (West Penwith), 1958 (Tate Gallery T00700). In both paintingsabstracted figurative forms were worked in a mixture of media which allowed a variety of techniques. A layer of ultramarine oil paint appears to have been laid on the canvas of Reclining Figure (St Rémy) - remaining visible at the corners - upon which white was applied energetically with a broad brush (25mm / 1 in.) dragging up the blue and mixing with it. The central area, identifiable with the reclining figure of the title, was rubbed back to blue and defined by smudges of Indian red and sweeps of white. The thickness of the white allowed a series of stepped scrapes made with a palette knife (to the left and in the centre); it has also resulted in cracking in the surface, noticeable in the upper and lower centre. Pencil was used to add the long horizontals to the figure, the crossing verticals and enclosing lines especially around the right end. These defining lines relate to the more clearly ruled pencil lines on Forms (West Penwith). The canvas is floated, unglazed, on a hessian covered backing board which appears to be the original framing. Two Gimpel Fils labels on the reverse of the painting indicate that the work was sent to New York; although unspecified, it is likely to have been for the solo exhibition in 1959.
Although an established theme in sculpture - especially in the work of Henry Moore - the reclining figure was relatively limited in Hepworth's career. The pose was used in a number of life drawings in the 1950s, notably Three Reclining Figures (Prussian Blue), 1951 (Peter Gimpel, repr. Alan Bowness, Barbara Hepworth: Drawings from a Sculptor's Landscape, 1966, pl.19 in col.), in which the combination of blue, white and touches of earthy reds and browns anticipated Reclining Figure (St Rémy). The disparate paintings and drawings of the late 1950s may be linked to the project for Waterloo Bridge, 1946-7 (Tate Gallery L00948-50) for which Hepworth proposed abstracted recumbent sculptures. Associated forms emerged in such sculptures as Reclining Form (Trewyn), 1959 (BH 262, Trustees of the artist's estate, repr. Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.128, pl.61 in col.). These show a shift from the urban location of the bridge project to a concern with the place of the body in the landscape. Perhaps as a result of the fluency of the media Reclining Figure (St Rémy) is extreme among these works in the reduction of the figure to an hour-glass form.
These post-war works look back to the mother and child sculptures of the early 1930s, such as Mother and Child, 1934 (Tate Gallery T06676), both in the abstracted manipulation of form and in the concentration on the rhythmic outline. These characteristics and the French subtitle had already been used for the collageSaint Rémy, 1933 (private collection, repr. A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.46, fig.26, as '1931'), in which silhouettes derived from Hepworth's contemporary sculptures - including a central reclining figure - were cut-out from various papers. The title presumably refers to the visit that Hepworth made with Ben Nicholson to St Rémy in Provence at Easter 1933. In 1952, the sculptor recalled the trip in terms circumscribed by her later concerns: 'I began to imagine the earth rising and becoming human' (Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, section 2). She made several drawings of Roman ruins and anthropomorphic hills, such as St Rémy, Mountains and Trees, 1933 (Trustees of the artist's estate, repr. Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.41, pl.95); this conjunction is echoed in Reclining Figure (St Rémy). The intense happiness of that holiday remained a point of reference in her relationship with Nicholson, making the reference particularly poignant at the time of their estrangement following his marriage to Felicitas Vogler in 1957.
Matthew Gale
March 1998

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