Dame Barbara Hepworth

Two Forms


Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903–1975
Alabaster on limestone base
Object: 260 × 296 × 176 mm, 7 kg
Purchased 1996

Display caption

This sculpture is carved from alabaster. The softness of alabaster suits Hepworth’s organic forms and she exploited this characteristic to incise such details as facial features and abstract patterns.

Gallery label, February 2010

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Catalogue entry

Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

T07123 Two Forms  1933

BH 51

Alabaster on original limestone base 260 x 296 x 173 (10 1/4 x 11 5/8 x 6 7/8); weight 7 kg

Purchased from Mr & Mrs J.B. Frankfort 1996

Purchased from the artist by Dr Henri Frankfort c.1934 and thence by descent

Barbara Hepworth, Tate Gallery, London, April-May 1968 (18)
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. (15, repr. in col. p.42)

J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, p.163, no.51, repr.
Alan G. Wilkinson, 'The 1930s: "Constructive Forms and Poetic Structure"' in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, pp.46-7
Sally Festing, Barbara Hepworth: A Life of Forms, London 1995, p.117
Anne M. Wagner, '"Miss Hepworth's Stone Is a Mother"' in David Thistlewood (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Reconsidered, Liverpool 1996, pp.63-4 (repr.)

A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London 1968, rev. ed. 1987, p.60, pl.38

The attenuated triangle balanced within a two-pronged fork of stone which constitutes Two Forms was formally and conceptually unprecedented in Barbara Hepworth's work in 1933 and would remain unrivalled. The two pieces of yellow alabaster - the sculptor's favoured material at that moment - are mounted on a circular base of beige limestone, to which the fork is secured by a dowel. The central triangular form rests on the higher edge within the fork and is pinned there by a second dowel. Both balance and movement (lateral as well as rocking) are thus ensured; ; but the original fixing has enlarged the hole through wear, causing it to become precarious. Some damage has resulted from this mobility and from the frequent reassembly of the parts; in 1996 the fixing was secured, the surface was cleaned and minor scratches retouched (Tate Gallery Conservation Files).

The two pieces are perpendicular to one another. The veining of the central form runs along its length, which twists slightly towards the narrower end. The richer and browner veining of the fork, especially noticeable towards the base, runs across the prongs. Both stones carry the calligraphic incisions which Hepworth favoured in 1932-3, but their identity is ambiguous. A single drill hole in the top of the thicker prong is accompanied by an undulating line engraved in its companion. Sally Festing has convincingly identified the latter as the sign for a hand, and added that the central form may be read as a bird (Festing 1995, p.117). The suggestion that it may be an animal is supported by the circular incised eye and the drill hole on either side of the end of the central stone. It relates to the tendency towards reduced detail found in the preceding years in works such as Hepworth's Doves, 1927 (BH 3, Manchester City Art Gallery, Hodin 1961, pl.3) or John Skeaping's Fish, 1930 (q.v.). The subject of a held bird had been treated by Skeaping, in Woman and Bird, c.1928 (private collection, repr. John Skeaping 1901-1980: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Arthur Ackermann & Son Ltd 1991, p.31), and by Maurice Lambert, in Man with a Bird, 1929 (T03756, q.v.). The animal component of Two Forms may equally evoke a fish, especially as its movement is comparable to Brancusi's rotating Poisson d'Or, 1924 (destroyed, formerly Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, repr. in col. Sidney Geist, Brancusi: The Sculpture and Drawings, New York, 1975, p.130, no.181) owned at that time by Jim Ede, whose Hampstead house Hepworth visited regularly.

Irrespective of such naturalistic subjects, the effect of the central form is, as Alan Wilkinson has observed, 'blatantly phallic' (Wilkinson 1994, p.47). This suggests connotations for the fork (as hand, legs or vagina) and for the incised and drilled details (as orifices) which result in an unexpected sexuality; the phallic form is found in the contemporary Carving, 1933 (BH 49, destroyed, repr. Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, 1952, pl.24b) and Standing Figure, 1934 (BH 62, Hillman Periodicals, New York, repr. Hodin 1961, pl.62). In Two Forms, the sexual quality is given material form in the malleable effect achieved in the alabaster and through the contrast in the direction of the two stones, which serves to emphasise the penetration of one form by the other. On a personal level, this might reflect the excitement of her relationship with Ben Nicholson, which she acknowledged as having a direct impact on her work. After visiting Dieppe with him in 1932, she wrote of her new works: 'they are going to be good - It is all that loveliness you have given me dear & all that expression of that new world we seemed to look into the last month' (letter post-marked 3 Sept. 1932, TGA 8717.1.1.98). Their shared approach is seen in the similar use of incisions which became increasingly abstract during 1933. Just as the markings on Two Forms are ambiguous, so Nicholson's scraped lines momentarily become sexualised in the suggestion of a female nude in 1933 (composition in black and white) (Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, repr. Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery 1993, p.134) and of a vagina in 1933 (painting - hibiscus) (Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, repr. ibid. p.135).

On another level, the complications of Nicholson's divided time between Hepworth and Winifred Nicholson led to speculations couched in the language of their Christian Science beliefs. Hepworth subscribed to these views, but in one pertinent passage pointed out that 'Science will not admit the necessity of sex harmony'. She objected:

How can we cut out the most lovely thing that God has created - the quiet strength & urge that makes a flower force its way out of the beaten earth or raise its head after much trampling - that makes all that quiet still movement in the night of things growing - growing to new loveliness and light. It is the rhythm of the seasons & the heart of earth & sea & sands - & the very stillness of understanding as deep as the blue of sky in the night.
(letter to Nicholson postmarked 22 July 1932 TGA 8717.1.1.82)

Although not directly associated with Two Forms, this passage indicates that the sculpture's implicit sexuality related to a wider view of the structure of nature. Elaboration of this is found in Hepworth's public statements, where similar language is used in a theoretical context. In her contribution to Unit One (1934, p.19), composed in late 1933, she wrote of a train, an aeroplane and pylons 'in lovely juxtaposition with springy turf and trees of every stature. It is the relationship of these things that makes such loveliness' (Unit One, 1934, p.19). Hepworth reserved the recurrent term 'lovely' for harmony or harmonious relations, as had been specified in her 1932 statement, 'The Aim of the Modern Artist: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson' (Studio, vol.104, no.477, Dec. 1932, p.332). In the year between these texts, she sharpened her theoretical precision partly as a result of her discussions with Adrian Stokes, who favourably reviewed her 1933 exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery (Spectator, 3 Nov. 1933) and who, as she told Nicholson, began 'collaborating over my Unit One thing - that is he is going to help me!' (letter postmarked 8 Dec. 1933, TGA 8717.1.1.157). She claimed that the 'sculptor carves because he must' in 1932, but specifically qualified this point in Unit One: 'The predisposition to carve is not enough, there must be a positive living and moving towards an ideal'. That ideal was to be abstract work, which she defined as 'an impersonal vision individualised in the particular medium'. However, she concluded: 'In the contemplation of Nature we are perpetually renewed, our sense of mystery and our imagination is kept alive, and rightly understood, it gives us the power to project into a plastic medium some universal or abstract vision of beauty' (Unit One, 1934, p.20). While this conclusion reflects the figurative associations of the alabasters which were reproduced, it also shows a self-conscious move towards what Hepworth saw as an individual abstraction.

Although speaking of an 'impersonal vision', Hepworth's status as a woman artist imbued her recurrent subjects of the female figure with particular resonances. Her transformation of these themes in 1932-3 has recently been seen as an objectification of the female body by Anne Wagner, who considers that in Two Forms 'the body has split into parts, amputees or fragments which mime a grotesque and fruitless intercourse' (Wagner 1996, p.64). While such a language of aggression is at odds with the sculptor's, it seems likely that Hepworth viewed her subject as a site of opposing demands. Writing to Nicholson of a visit from the artist Hans Feibusch, she reported his preference for her work over Moore's and added: 'He was most refreshing to me with his ideas about woman - he said a woman's idea when it came through was tremendously exciting to him because it was so simple - that men had so much ability & freedom that they made many deviations' (letter postmarked 14 Dec. 1933 TGA 8717.1.1.161). Although reported through the mouth of another, this is evidence of Hepworth's own consideration of the necessity for single-mindedness as a woman artist. She was well aware of the social conventions of status alluded to by Feibusch, in addition to which she had to balance her sculpting against the demands of her four year old young son, who had to be sent away to Welwyn to allow her to 'get work done' (letter to Nicholson, postmarked 31 Dec. 1932, TGA 8717.1.1.131).

Two Forms was made in the period circumscribed by these public statements and private letters of 1932-33. Its sexual quality coincided with that of Salvador Dalí's contemporary Surrealist paintings such as The Enigma of William Tell, 1933 (Moderna Museet, Stockholm), in which crutches support extruded body parts. It is unclear whether Hepworth was yet aware of Dalí's work, but her stay in Paris with Nicholson at Easter in April 1933 brought contacts with the fringes of Surrealism - a movement in which Nicholson was briefly interested. Judging from the order in her catalogue of works (Hodin 1961), Alan Wilkinson (1994, p.47) has proposed that it was following the trip that Hepworth began to make multi-part sculptures in response to the work of Arp (and before Moore's similar experiments of 1934). In Arp's studio, around which they were shown by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hepworth saw the first of his biomorphic plaster sculptures in which varying organic forms were juxtaposed and given such humorous or sometimes worrying titles as Head with Annoying Objects, 1930-2 (Kunstmuseum, Silkeborg, repr. ibid.). It is notable that the latter would be illustrated, as Concrétion humaine, in the first number of Myfanwy Evans's periodical Axis (Jan. 1935, p.16). Although such concerns were far from her own, Hepworth would later recall the 'poetic idea in Arp's sculptures' (Read 1952, section 2). A darker tone was set by Giacometti, with whom Nicholson may have already been in contact in March (Lewison, Ben Nicholson, Tate Gallery, exh. cat. 1993, p.241) and may have met with Hepworth in April (Wilkinson 1994, p.45). Giacometti's overtly phallic Disagreeable Object, 1931 (private collection, repr. Alberto Giacometti, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1996, no.69, pl.18), a drawing of which appeared in the periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution (no.3, Dec. 1931, pp.18-19), is especially comparable to the central element of Hepworth's Two Forms, although the threatening spikiness of his wooden object is far from the sensuality of her alabaster. Picasso had likewise been working with organic and threateningly sexualised forms. Hepworth recalled visiting his painting studio that spring (Read 1952, section 2), where she may well have seen works such as the mutually devouring and phallic Figures by the Sea, 1931 (Musée Picasso, repr. Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, vol.7 Oeuvres de 1926 à 1932, Paris 1955, p.134, pl.328). She would already have known the more abstract and bone-like series of Drawings for a Monument, 1928 published in Cahiers d'Art in 1929 (vol.4, no.8-9, pp.342-53).

Two Forms was not exhibited or reproduced at the time. The first owner, Henri Frankfort, informed the Tate (in conversation with Richard Morphet, recorded in Tate Gallery Acquisition File) that its purchase had been a way in which Hepworth's and Nicholson's friends provided support following the birth of their triplets in October 1934. The artists seem to have opened their studio to friends soon after (Festing 1995, p.119). Frankfort was one of the British Museum archaeologists amongst whom Hepworth's work of the 1920s had found favour, and later wrote about such abstract multi-part pieces as Three Forms, 1934 (q.v.) in the sculpture issue of Axis ('New Works by Barbara Hepworth', Axis, no.3, July 1935, p.16).

Matthew Gale
April 1997

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