Dame Barbara Hepworth

Sculpture with Profiles


Not on display

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Alabaster on alabaster base
Object: 230 × 239 × 150 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs Helen Margaret Murray in memory of her husband Frederick Lewis Staite Murray 1992

Display caption

All of these sculptures are carved from alabaster. The varying qualities of the same stone are immediately evident. Gaudier-Brzeska used gilding (now discoloured) to give his relief an antique quality. The softness of alabaster suits it to Hepworth's organic forms and she exploited this characteristic to incise such details as facial features and abstract patterns.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T06520 Sculpture with Profiles 1932

BH 45

Alabaster 190 x 190 x 140 (7 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 5 1/2) on original alabaster base 35 x 239 x 139 (1 3/8 x 9 3/8 x 5 1/2)

Bequeathed by Mrs Helen Margaret Murray in memory of her husband Frederick Lewis Staite Murray 1992

?Acquired from the artist via Alex Reid and Lefevre by Frederick Lewis Staite Murray 1933

Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Alex Reid and Lefevre, London, Oct.-Nov. 1933 (5, as Composition)
Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings by Paul Nash and Barbara Hepworth, Temple Newsam, Leeds, April-June 1943 (82 as Sculpture with Profile, 1933)
Art in Britain 1930-40 Centred around Axis, Circle, Unit One, Marlborough Fine Art, London, March-April 1965 (35 as Sculpture with Profile)
Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (15, repr. p.9)
British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, Sept. 1981-Jan. 1982 (part 1, 150)
Années 30 en Europe: Le Temps menaçant 1929-1939, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Feb. - May 1997 (no number, col. repr. p.304)
Carving Mountains: Modern Stone Sculpture in England 1907-37, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, March-April 1998, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, May-June (21, repr. pp.38, 70)

William Gibson, Barbara Hepworth: Sculptress, London 1946, p.6, pls.16-17
J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.162 no.45, repr.
Robert Melville, 'Creative Gap', New Statesman, vol.75, no.1935, 12 April 1968, p.494
Anne M. Wagner, '"Miss Hepworth's Stone Is a Mother"' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, Liverpool 1996, p.63
Sophie Bowness, 'Modernist Stone Carving in England and the "Big View of Sculpture", Carving Mountains: Modern Stone Sculpture in England 1907-37, exh. cat., Kettles Yard, Cambridge 1998, p.37

Eric Underwood, A Short History of English Sculpture, 1933, opposite p.171, fig.47 (as Carving in White Alabaster)
Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London 1952, pl.30
Herbert Read, 'A Nest of Gentle Artists', Apollo, vol.77, no.7, Sept. 1962, p.537 (as Carving in white alabaster)
Cyril Barrett, 'Art in Britain 1930-40', Das Kunstwerk, vol.19, no.1, July 1965, p.13
A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.53, pls.30-1
Barbara Hepworth: Early Life, exh. cat., Wakefield Art Gallery and Museum, 1985, p.34

During the 1930s Hepworth began what has been perceived as a smooth transition from the concerns of direct carving to those of constructivism. Already in October 1931, she described her work as 'tending to become more abstract' (letter to Ben Nicholson at Bankshead, post-marked 2 Oct.1931, TGA 8717.1.1.56), and she would later look back on this period as 'pre-"totally constructive" ' (letter to E.H. Ramsden, 28 April [?1943], TGA 9310). A decade later again, she specified that 'achieving a personal harmony with the material' was superseded in 1930 by independence; of Head, 1930 (BH 32, Leicestershire Museums, Arts and Records Service, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.32) she wrote that it 'expressed that feeling of freedom, and a new period began in which my idea formed independently of the block' (Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, section 1). In his introduction to Hepworth's part of the exhibition shared with Nicholson in late 1932, Herbert Read already felt able to identify the departure from direct carving. Taking it as an achievement secured, he noted: 'Beyond these essentials, so appealing to our immediate senses, there is a fantasy which should awaken subtler delights in the imagination and memory' ('Foreword', Carvings by Barbara Hepworth, Paintings by Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Arthur Tooth and Sons 1932).

There is little doubt about either the proficiency with which Hepworth carved stone and wood by 1929 or the composition of abstract solids in 1935, but the work of the intervening years was varied, with reversions to earlier conventions alongside innovations which were not followed through in the constructive phase. Indeed, the works reflect an especially experimental and turbulent period for the artist in which a primitivising figurative work, Kneeling Figure, 1932 (BH 42, Wakefield City Art Gallery, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.42), could appear after the biomorphic and formally significant Pierced Form, 1931 (BH 35, destroyed, repr. ibid. pl.35). Their conjunction must suggest an adjustment either to their chronological relationship or to the idea that Hepworth pursued a single direction. There is supporting evidence in her productivity: after ten sculptures in 1929, output dropped to five in 1930 and three in 1931. This may be related to the birth of her son Paul in 1929 and the emotional upheaval following her encounter with Nicholson in April 1931. Nevertheless, Hepworth's surviving correspondence shows that she was also experimenting with printing and with photograms (unique photographs made by laying objects on light sensitive paper); she obviously felt considerable enthusiasm for both media as well as hoping to derive some commercial success from the results.

Sculpture with Profiles dates from this 'pre-"totally constructive" ' period. Its form is loosely figurative, giving 'the impression of being a human bust hidden under a wet cloth' (Melville 1968). Anne Wagner has seen it as an expression of a female perception, remarking that 'Hepworth's proposal concerning the female body announces more than its coherence and unity. It is a body which can be as abrupt as it is unified, can seem as stunted as it is continuous. It becomes less a body than an object' (Wagner 1996). While the objectification of the form makes the identification of Sculpture with Profiles as a female body uncertain, it does fit with the dominant themes in Hepworth's work at this time of the female nude and the embracing mother and child. Parts may certainly be read as a head and shoulders. These are particularised by the incised lines although not without contradiction. The three fingers and thumb on the front relate to the shoulder, but a head in profile (with a simple dot eye) is delineated on the left side of the protrusion above, looking towards the rear. It is partnered on the other side by a face in profile (also loking towards the rear), open-mouthed and with an oval and dot eye. A third eye - an almond with circle and dot - appears on the very top of the stone. At their most immediate, these individual details evoke at least three senses - touch, speech and sight - two of which were intimately bound to the making of sculpture. In this, as in their apparently free arrangement, they may support Read's identification of 'fantasy' in Hepworth's works.

A number of related works qualified organic form through figurative incised lines. Although Sculpture with Profiles was not included in the 1932 Tooth's exhibition, two of Hepworth's pieces served to demonstrate this development. The nestling mother and child in alabaster, entitled Two Heads, 1932 (BH 38, Pier Gallery, Stromness, repr. Read 1952, pl.20b) showed a naturalistic stage, in contrast to the more biomorphic green marble Profile, 1932 (BH 40, private collection, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.40). Both of these works were pierced near the centre: between the two heads of the former, and below the inscribed face of the latter. The penetration of the stone has been recognised as a crucial step in Hepworth's work, one followed by Moore in 1932. Hepworth would recall 'the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space' (Read 1952, section 2). However, with Profile, unlike the earlier Pierced Form, the relationship of hole to face retained figurative references.

The figurative aspect continued to infuse the works which appeared in the sculptor's second combined exhibition with Nicholson in late 1933 in which Sculpture with Profiles was shown. It is likely that the work was acquired there by Frederick Murray, brother of the potter William Staite Murray, a fellow member of the 7 & 5 Society. It was shown as Composition although it was simultaneously published by Underwood as Carving in White Alabaster. Both early titles draw attention to the abstract, this was emphasised less when the present title came into use in the 1940s. While this may reflect the later critical hostility to abstraction, the change confirms the balance between form and subject which was also achieved in related alabaster works such as the vertical Figure, 1933 (BH 48, former collection Lady Bliss, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.48) - first shown as Composition - and Reclining Figure, 1932 (BH 44, private collection, repr. ibid., no.44). Both of these were included in the 1933 exhibition with Sculpture with Profiles, and both are visible in the photograph of the artist's studio in Unit One (1934, p.21). Such biomorphic bodies also feature in silhouette in Hepworth's collages; that of Reclining Figure dominates three similar forms in the collage Saint-Rémy, 1933 (private collection, repr. Hammacher 1968 and 1987, p.46 fig.26, as '1931') which is also visible in the photograph. Their combination in this context tends to reinforce the impression of a concerted theme.

It was appropriate that Hepworth used soft alabaster for most of these organic sculptures. Of the thirty-eight works for the years 1930-34 listed in Alan Bowness's catalogue (Hodin 1961), twenty were identified as in alabaster; Henry Moore recalled that the use of this stone in their circle was initiated by Skeaping (quoted in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, 1979, p.117). It may be suggested that the ease of working allowed a rise in productivity during a period of financial instability; she made ten works in each of the years 1932-34, a total of sixteen being alabaster. For Sculpture with Profiles the choice was of a cream stone with heavy butterscotch veining for the sculpture, on a more yellow crazed (and evidently sawn) base. One danger was that alabaster was prone to fracture, as is evident from the now blackened fault at the right side and the crack in the grain of the head. However, it did allow the easy incision of lines, although some of the edges are slightly nibbed; these appeared to be whiter in the earliest published photograph (Underwood 1933), either through the opacity of the cut or because of some treatment. The whole block is completely undercut leaving two protrusions through which it is attached with stainless steel screws to the base. This balancing upon rounded points carries echoes of the use of ironstone pebbles collected and worked by Hepworth, Skeaping and Moore during the previous summers (see Skeaping's Fish, Tate Gallery T06548).

The differences between the incised details suggest private meanings not least because the profile face closely resembles that of Hepworth herself, hinting at self-identification. This is distinct from the more generalised profiles used on such works as Profile, 1932 or Figure, 1933. Instead it has echoes in other practices of 1932-3. In November 1933, writing to Nicholson who was in Paris with Winifred, Hepworth announced 'I am doing photograms!' (post-marked 26 Nov. 1933, TGA 8717.1.1.148). One of the results may be the Self-photogram of her profile published - as of 1932 - in A Pictorial Autobiography (1970, New ed. 1978, p.24, fig.58), and this departure seems to relate to discussions the day before with Moholy-Nagy, one of the discoverers of the technique. As an acknowledgement of inspiration, her profile was also central to such Nicholson paintings as 1932 (profile - Venetian red) (private collection, repr. Jeremy Lewison, Ben Nicholson, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1993, p.119, no.23), and came to be combined with gouges into the paint; incised through black into white, she is embraced by a man with a Greek profile in 1933 (St Rémy, Provence) (private collection, repr. ibid. p.128, no.34). Both the technique and motif parallel those on Sculpture with Profiles. Closer still to the sculpture, are her features in Nicholson's 1933 profile linocut (Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge, repr. ibid. p.129, no.36), where the inclusion of a second floating eye in the head accords with that placed on the top of the sculpture.

The redistribution of figurative parts on Sculpture with Profiles also reflects concerns which both Hepworth and Nicholson shared with artists in Paris. The re-arrangement of features was a classic Cubist device, with the use of outline close to Picasso's continuous line in paintings of the late 1920s (Wagner 1996, p.60). Braque used a comparable line in his still lifes which were regularly reproduced in Cahiers d'Art, and he was the most frequently mentioned artist in Hepworth's letters to Nicholson during the latter's periodic stays with Winifred in Paris. Hepworth and Nicholson met both Picasso and Braque on their passage through Paris at Easter 1933 (Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1994, p.43). The floating details on the sculpture's surface may also be related to Giacometti's most recent sculptures, which reflected contact with Surrealism. He may have been amongst the artists whom Hepworth and Nicholson met on their Parisian trip at Easter 1933, as Alan Wilkinson has suggested (ibid.). By that time Giacometti had carved his marble Caress, 1932 (private collection, repr. Reinhold Hohl, Giacometti, Sculpture, Painting, Drawing, 1972, p.62), an apparently abstract form with - coincidentally, in relation to Sculpture with Profiles - outlines of hands incised on either side.

On the same trip, the couple also visited the studios of Brancusi and Arp, meeting Sophie Taeuber-Arp in the latter's absence. Twenty years later Hepworth specifically recalled showing Brancusi photographs of her Pierced Form, 1931 and Profile, 1932; significantly, she added that she 'was, therefore, looking for some sort of ratification of an idea which had germinated during the last two years' (Read 1952, section 2). Of Brancusi's studio, she remembered the 'humanism, which seemed intrinsic in all the forms', an abstraction from experience which was implicitly contrasted with the 'poetic idea in Arp's sculptures' (ibid.). As Alan Wilkinson has noted ('The 1930s: "Constructive Forms and Poetic Structure" ' in Curtis and Wilkinson 1994, p.45), the biomorphic form of Arp's works such as Head with Annoying Objects, 1930-2 (Kunstmuseum, Silkeborg, repr. ibid.) proved to be an immediate stimulus to Hepworth. In her alabaster sculptures, she had already begun to negotiate a path between the alternatives with which she associated the two Parisian sculptors. In response to the question of the relationship between sculpture and other arts, Hepworth wrote in late 1932: 'The best carvings are necessarily both abstract and representational, and if the sculptor can express his vision in the right medium, the abstract conception of form imbued with that life force, then he is at one with all other artists' ('The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson', Studio, vol.104, no.477, Dec. 1932, p.332).

Matthew Gale
April 1997

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