As one of the highlights of our 12 June sale of Modern & Post-War British Art, (London, 12 June) we take a closer look at the exceptional sculpture by Dame Barbara Hepworth, which is being offered for the very first time at auction.
Throughout Barbara Hepworth’s distinguished career, direct carving in stone was the method and material most readily associated with her artistic aims. In 1924 she received the West Riding Scholarship for travel from her alma mater, the Royal College of Art. This provided her with the opportunity of studying marble sculptures in Italy, from antiquity through to the Renaissance, visiting the famed Carrara marble quarry and taking lessons from the master carver Giovanni Ardini in Rome.
Together with her second husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, she travelled to France in 1932, visiting the studios of internationally renowned modernist sculptors Constantin Brâncuşi, Alberto Giacometti and Hans Arp. This trip was to prove pivotal to the development of Hepworth’s practice, underscoring her aesthetic of ‘fundamental shapes’ and truth to material. Alongside Henry Moore, whom she had met whilst a student at Leeds College of Art in the early 1920s, she became one of the main exponents of ‘direct carving’.
The post-war period was one of increasing international recognition. The 1950s were book-ended by representing Britain at the Venice Biennale of 1950 and receiving the Grand Prix at the São Paulo Biennale of 1959. Carved in 1959, Spiral represents the peak of Hepworth’s creative prowess, building on a recognised body of work whilst formulating new directions for her work to take in the following decades.
‘Carving became increasingly rhythmical, and I was aware of the special pleasures that sculptors can have through carving, that of a complete unity of physical and mental rhythm’ .
One aspect that remained central to Hepworth’s approach throughout the course of her career was the importance of the artist’s hand: she forbade any use of mechanical tools in her studios in Hampstead and St Ives, instead preferring the labour-intensive but age-old chisel and hammer.
Hepworth saw the most successful of her carved works as a taut balance between the chosen material and the forms realised within the stone during the chiselling process. In the late 1920s, she made her first foray into the use of alabaster, a soft translucent stone that facilitated her modelling of organic forms, enabling her to manipulate and incise the surface with detailing and pattern that was beguilingly tactile.
Sculpture communicates an immediate sense of life – you can feel the pulse of it. It is perceived, above all, by the sense of touch which is our earliest sensation...
The pierced element of Spiral is, again, a motif that stretches back to the early decades of the artist’s career, to the early 1930s when both she and Henry Moore introduced pierced elements into their sculptures for the first time, a seismic moment in the development of modernist sculpture. As the sculpture is literally and metaphorically opened, possibilities abound for symbolism and allusion, mystery and metaphor.
The internal curvature of the sculpture, an entirely new component, springs into prominence, whilst a transformation occurs in the fall and play of light on, around and through the work, particularly with the shimmering semi-opaque white alabaster of Spiral. As Hepworth commented, there is an ‘intense pleasure’ in ‘relating oneself to the ‘life’ in the particular material’ (Barbara Hepworth quoted in Michael Shepherd, Barbara Hepworth, Methuen, London, 1963, unpaginated).
Spiral clearly struck a personal chord with Hepworth, and remained in her studio long after its initial conception. When finally persuaded to part with the sculpture, it was only to her close friends, the gallerist brothers Charles and Peter Gimpel, remaining with them until after the sculptor’s death.
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