Barbara Hepworth, Orpheus (Maquette I)
Orpheus (Maquette 1), dating from 1956, marks a radical shift in Hepworth’s working practice, away from direct stone carving and the modernist principle of ‘truth to material’ to which she had ascribed, advanced by Rodin, Brancusi, Arp, Gaudier-Brzeska, Gill and Moore. While the present work retains and builds upon key themes within Hepworth’s career, the new technique of using sheet metal allied her with the formal concerns of avant-garde European sculpture, notably that of her friend and the pioneering Constructivist, Naum Gabo, as well as with the innovations of the new generation of post-War British artists, such as Lynn Chadwick and Reg Butler, who had garnered worldwide attention at the 1952 Venice Biennale.
The present work originated from a commission by the electronics firm Mullard Ltd. for Mullard House in Bloomsbury. This resulted in Theme on Electronics (Orpheus), 1956, the poised metal rising nearly four feet and set on a revolving base. Orpheus (Maquette 1) is the first preparatory piece, followed by Orpheus (Maquette 2) on a slightly larger scale. Following the success of these at a show at Gimpel Fils in 1958, she produced an additional version, Orpheus (Maquette 2) (Version II), standing three feet tall – one of which was sold recently at Sotheby’s, New York, 30 June 2020, lot 1023.
Orpheus (Maquette 1) consists of cut brass sheets and string, which was originally locally sourced fishing twine – both a pragmatic touch and one which lends the work an earthy quality, in contrast to the more clinical nylon monofilament of Gabo’s constructions. The technique of forming the metal sheets was a laborious process and was recalled by her studio assistant Brian Wall. Hepworth did not allow the metal to be heated, so the curvature was achieved by ‘cold rolling’ – repeatedly running a piece of wood over the metal to make it curl - then cut with metal cutters or drilling lines of holes and filling them. These were then held in place by the string, and finally, patina was added by hand. The stringing also appears to have been done by eye rather than strict measurement, and the small graduations in the spacing of the holes are consistent with adjustments to compensate for the curvature of the metal.
Hepworth had briefly experimented with metal in the early 1950s for theatrical designs. At the invitation of Michel St Denis, for his production of Sophocles’ Electra at the Old Vic in London, she designed Apollo (1951, Tate Collection), comprising bent steel rods and made by her studio assistant Denis Mitchell. It has a linear, graphic element and recalls Picasso’s innovative ‘drawings in space’, such as Construction in Wire (1930). In 1954, Hepworth worked on Michael Tippett's opera, The Midsummer Marriage at Covent Garden, constructing curved and spoked elements for the set (fig. 2). Such designs and experimentation no doubt provided stimulus for Hepworth’s ideas for the Mullard commission.
Connections can also be made with Hepworth’s sculptural drawings of the early 1940s, which explore geometric forms and, through the inclusion of a network of lines (recalling the string on the present work), create a sense of three-dimensional space (fig. 3). These drawings make ready comparison with Gabo’s perspex constructions, especially his Linear Construction in Space series, which began in the early 1940s while he was in Cornwall with Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Like Theme on Electronics (Orpheus), Gabo’s Linear Construction in Space No.2 (fig. 4) was also intended for a building and was to rotate (it was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for Esso’s office building in New York but was unrealised in its final version). Movement was an integral part of Gabo’s concept, as was its relationship to the building. ‘I have seen the place and I think that the whole thing is a challenge to me. I have the feeling that here is a case where I simply have to show what Constructive art can do in connection with architecture … to prove that the Constructive sculpture is not just a theory for heaven but a very real, aesthetic solution to our everyday life’ (the Artist, quoted in Martin Hammer & Christina Loder, Constructing Modernity, The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, Yale Publishing, New Haven, 2000, p.322).
While the purity of Gabo’s vision in allying Constructivist sculpture with architecture was not shared to the same extent as Hepworth, undoubtedly Hepworth recognised the value of sculpture within architectural spaces, which resulted in some of her most renowned works, including Single Form (1961-4) at the United Nations headquarters in New York or Winged Figure (1963), for the John Lewis building on Oxford Street, London.
The title of the final version of the present work, Theme on Electronics, acknowledges its place in the modern world (and its dependence on engineering and electronics to allow for its rotation). It is this new emphasis that accounts for the more pronounced linear, geometric shape of Orpheus (Maquette 1) in contrast with the rounded, organic qualities of her earlier, direct carvings. While some of these also incorporated string, such as Pelagos (1946, Tate), its use here has a greater structural and visual importance. It holds the sculpture together and dissects the space between the three upward curves of the metal sheets, offering a common focal point which lends it greater depth.
The thin, malleable quality of the metal – here formed into a W-shape – allowed Hepworth to give her sculpture an openness that was not structurally possible with wood or stone. Its lightness also gives it a delicate poise - a sense of strength and fragility. Such qualities are characteristic of the work of Butler and Chadwick whose iron constructions she admired (fig. 5). Chadwick’s series, The Inner Eye, of 1952 draws comparison in the open form of the metal sheet and iron rods, in the middle of which an ‘eye’ is suspended, not unlike the focal point conveyed where the intersecting lines meet in the open space of Orpheus (Maquette 1).
The structure and design of the present work thus placed Hepworth within the varying contemporary trends in sculpture. However, unlike her younger British contemporaries, dubbed the ‘geometry of fear’ generation by Herbert Read on account of a sense of post-War angst in their work, or as Hepworth described it, possessing a ‘nervous disintegration’ (letter to Herbert Read, 13 May 1952, Sir Herbert Read Archive, University of Victoria, B.C.), her sculpture retains an affirmative quality which is a hallmark of her oeuvre.
As observed by critic J. P. Hodin, for Hepworth, ‘modern art is an absolute belief in modern man’; it must therefore employ a formal, abstract language to reflect the new age of scientific and technological ideas. ‘We are building a new mythology,’ Hepworth described it (quoted in J.P.Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Lund Humphries, London, 1961, p.18). Hepworth’s choice of subtitle, ‘Orpheus’ for the series appears to play on this, as well as reveal her longstanding interest in the relationship between art and science. The present maquette and its final version are scientific and mechanical, yet Hepworth links it with the classical world of art and music, thus harmonising traditional areas of division and, albeit subtly, reinforcing the sense of balance visually evident in the work. There is equally a ready link between the strings of the sculpture and Orpheus’ lyre. Such Greek allusions became more common in Hepworth’s work after a deeply impressionable trip to Greece in 1954.
Orpheus (Maquette 1) stands at a critical juncture within Hepworth’s career, heralding a significant new direction. Following it, she began in earnest to work in metal, a closely related example to the present being String Figure (Curlew) (conceived in 1956 and cast in 1959, Tate). She also twisted sheets of copper to produce Forms in Movement (Galliard) (1956, Aratoi, Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, New Zealand), which subsequently led to her using plaster to cast in bronze the related Forms in Movement (Pavan) (1956-9, Tate) and thus begin her serious engagement with bronze. These innovations freed Hepworth from becoming constrained by a dogmatic insistence upon ‘truth to materials’, opening up new opportunities which allowed her to continue to make vital contributions to the sculptural landscape, and thereby defining her as one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century.