Its outer curve recalls the shape of the large round pebbles – impenetrable stone worn soft and supple by the press of the Atlantic Ocean – that Hepworth would gather from the rugged shores that skirt the town of St Ives, where she and Ben Nicholson settled with their children at the start of the Second World War. Its core, however, if fully opened up, creates an inner curve reminiscent of a wave about to break. This inner form is roughly scored with a chisel, a trace memory of the violent forces that over millennia shapes stone to perfect smoothness. Within a single image then, land and sea collide and combine, in an embrace that holds the artist within, in perfect stillness.
The matrix of ‘strings’ that sculpt the space within is also a key conceptual device within Hepworth’s work of 1940s and 1950s, no doubt as a result of her on going contact with the Russian Constructivist sculptor, Naum Gabo, who followed Hepworth and Nicholson to St Ives at the beginning of the War. In Curved Form though, Gabo’s translucent filaments are transformed into a web of steel rods that give a wonderful solidity to this ‘empty’ space. As the form opens out, so the rods hold it tight – air balanced against mass – creating a tension that Hepworth saw as a metaphor for the ‘tension I felt between myself, the sea, the wind or the hills’ (quoted in Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth Carvings & Drawings, Lund Humphries, London, 1952, unpaginated). As she had written to Herbert Read in the 1940s: 'Constructivism does not do away with imagery - in fact it contains the most easily understood use of images which are undoubtedly organic in so far as they are the basic forms of the rhythm of landscape, primary construction, the human figure and so on' (Herbert Read Archive, quoted in Matthew Gale & Chris Stephens, Barbara Hepworth, Tate Publishing, London, 1999, p. 101).
Hepworth began working in metal in 1956, initially cutting and welding, but soon moved towards casting in bronze. However, rather than follow the traditional method of modelling in clay or wax, Hepworth created the prototype by carving in plaster, thus preserving the process, of forms taking shape under – and responding to - the pressure of the chisel, that had defined her work from the beginning. This is not to say she didn’t delight in the new possibilities offered by working in bronze – of colour and patina and, perhaps most importantly, being able to attempt forms that were more open and transparent than would be architectonically possible in stone or wood.
Casting also allowed Hepworth to reach a much larger audience, after a decade of incredible success, which started in 1950 with her representing Britain at the Venice Biennale, continued with a number of major solo exhibitions and public commissions and finished in 1959, with her winning the Grand Prix at the Sao Paulo Biennale – the same year she conceived Curved Form. In revisiting the sinuous form of her 1943-4 wood carving Wave (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh) Hepworth simplifies it further under the influence of cold, hard metal, creating a perfect expression of her work at a moment when she is in full control of both her formal language and medium.
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