‘Carving is interrelated masses conveying an emotion; a perfect relationship between the mind and the colour, light and weight which is the stone, made by the hand which feels. It must be so essentially sculpture that it can exist in no other way, something completely the right size but which has growth, something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality. A thing so sculpturally good that the smallest section radiates the intensity of the whole and the spatial displacement is as lovely as the freed and living stone shape…’ (Barbara Hepworth, Statement for Unit One, 1934)
Carved in 1934, Standing Figure encapsulates all that was most important to Hepworth during the early 1930s. The figure stands poised at the scintillating counterpoint between abstraction and figuration with all direct reference to form reduced most elegantly to the single point on the figure's head. The subtle contours of the body, beautifully curving around the natural veins of the white marble stone, demonstrate both her virtuosity as a carver, but also her profound understanding of the human figure. As Alan Wilkinson surmised: 'This important carving heralds the beginning of Hepworth’s obsession with the upright form… Like Brancusi’s L’Oiseau dans l’espace, Hepworth’s Standing Figure teeters on the brink of abstraction. By the end of 1934 she would take the crucial step of paring down the rarefied essences of Brancusi’s art and move into the realm of complete abstraction’ (Wilkinson, quoted in Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, (exh. cat.), Tate, London, 1994, pp.50-51).
Hepworth and Ben Nicholson had visited Constantin Brancusi in his Paris studio in 1932 and were undoubtedly enthralled with both the impact of his studio and the dialogue with abstraction that Brancusi had developed. Hepworth recalled: ‘I felt the power of Brancusi’s integrated personality and clear approach to his material very strongly… It was a special revelation to see this work which belonged to the living joy of spontaneous, active, and elemental forms of sculpture…’ (Hepworth, quoted in Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London, 1952, n.p.). Hepworth had already been carving a path towards abstraction during the previous decade and in her sculpture from the late 1920s such as Figure of a Woman (1929-30, corsehill stone, Tate, London) and Figure in Sycamore (1931, sycamore, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness), the features of the human form have been reduced to a dynamic simplicity. The minimalist forms of prehistoric Cycladic examples were also important sources but her tendency towards the abstract undoubtedly belies her position at the very heart of the European avant-garde. In 1933 she was invited by Jean Hélion and Auguste Herbin to join the Paris-based group Abstration-Creation and, in the same year, she joined Unit One, Paul Nash’s group that represented ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of today in painting, sculpture and architecture’ (Nash, The Times, 2nd June 1933). In 1934, the year of the present work, she participated in their first and only group exhibition at the Mayor Gallery alongside fellow sculptor Henry Moore, painters Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, John Armstrong, Edward Burra, John Bigge and Paul Nash together with architects Wells Coates and Colin Lucas. Later that year, on 3rd October, Hepworth gave birth to triplets and when she was able to start carving again in November, the subtle yet sophisticated references to the human figure evident in the present work disappeared altogether and her sculpture moved in an entirely abstract direction resulting in works such as Three Forms (1935, Tate, London) and Two Segments and Sphere (1935-36, Private Collection).
The white marble stone is highly significant and it became one of her favourite materials. She had first discovered the wonderful properties of marble on a travel scholarship to Italy in 1925 when she had studied with master carver Giovanni Ardini and on return to Britain, she became, with Henry Moore, the leading exponent for ‘direct carving’ in Britain. Standing Figure belongs to a small and rare group of white marble sculptures from the early 1930s which together with her alabaster carvings from the same period such as Large and Small Form (1934, white alabaster, Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, fig.2), share a particularly sensuous quality. All intimate in scale (it was not until the 1960s that Hepworth began working with white marble on a grand scale) and carved with great sensitivity to the luminous quality of stone, they incite an especially strong urge to touch and caress each surface as Hepworth herself would have done. The importance of the artist’s hand was crucial to her work and she was later known for forbidding the use of any mechanical tools in her studio. In 1932 she affirmed that: ‘The sculptor carves because he must. He needs the concrete form of stone and wood for the expression of his idea and experience (Hepworth, ‘The Sculptor Carves Because he Must’, The Studio, London, Vol.104, 1932, p.332).
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