Two Forms in Echelon is an exceptional carvings from this period. Carved from a beautiful grey slate stone, Hepworth displays her aptitude and understanding of the material, utilising its smooth finish and undulating grey tone to create a wonderfully sinuous and organic work. Her deep rooted love for carving is present here through her skilful manipulation of the surface, juxtaposing flat and curved planes, solids and voids to create a pure and lyrically striking aesthetic. What is most arresting in the present work is Hepworth’s ability to harness light. This is expressed most acutely through the introduction of her carefully hollowed apertures, which bring an inner vitality to the work. By introducing this inner light Hepworth transforms her works into living objects, which here echo the power of the monolithic stones of Cornwall, where she lived.
One of Hepworth’s key strengths was her ability to emphasise the physical potential of matter and make the properties of stone a form of expression. Hepworth took great pleasure in the physicality of carving, which allowed for her direct relationship with the material. In 1932 she stated, ‘I have always preferred carving to modelling because I like the hard material and feel happier working that way. Carving is more adapted to the expression of the accumulative idea of experience and clay to the visual attitude’ (K. de Barañano, exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth, Valencia, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, Valencia, 2004, p. 19). What resonates in Two Forms in Echelon is a heightened tactility. Hepworth described the importance of the sensation of touch, which she saw gave life and vitality to her work. She explained; ‘Sculpture affects the human mind through the senses of sight and touch. 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 sensations; and touch gives us a sense of living contact and security. Hence the vital power of sculpture’ (J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, London, 1959, p. 23).
In Two Forms in Echelon one can see the lasting influence of Constantin Brancusi, the modern master carver, who she met in 1933 when visiting his studio in Paris with her partner Ben Nicholson. His impact can be seen in her continued celebration of carving, her ethos ‘truth to materials’ and the reduction of her forms, which like Brancusi, distil a particular experience and evoke a sense of the eternal myth. Hepworth described the excitement she felt at their meeting, ‘I felt the power of Brancusi’s integrated personality and clear approach to the material very strongly. Everything I saw in the studio-workshop itself demonstrated this equilibrium between the works in progress and the finished sculptures around the walls, and also the humanism, which seemed intrinsic in all the forms’ (quoted in N. Wadley (intro.), exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth Carvings and Bronzes, New York, Marlborough Gallery, 1979, p. 8).
What is felt most powerfully in Two Forms in Echelon is the duality between abstraction and naturalism. Works of this period can be seen to have a dialogue with Hepworth’s sculptures of the 1930s, where forms were reduced to simple geometric shapes, which highlighted the tautness of volume in space and the delineation of line and plane. Hepworth’s continued interest in the abstraction of forms and the search for a purity of style and clarity within her work can be seen to be, in part, resultant of her life with Ben Nicholson, whom she was married to from 1938-1953, whose clean, harmonious aesthetic resonated with her own. It can also be assimilated with the work of Naum Gabo, who became a close friend and neighbour of the couple in 1935. His geometric, non-figurative spatial and constructivist ideals impressed Hepworth, as did his emphasis on the importance of the artist’s emotional attitude to material. During this period Hepworth was exposed to the ideas of neo-plasticism and constructivism, working with Gabo on the book Circle, along with architect Leslie Martin and later Piet Mondrian, who stayed in London in 1938, however, their ideals were too absolutist for Hepworth to fully adopt. Bryan Robertson explains: ‘Hepworth was affected rather than directly influenced by the work of these innovators, standing in direct spiritual opposition to each other; and the steadily growing strength of her imagination rapidly engendered a conception of sculpture which is entirely her own’ (Exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth’s Sculpture from 1952-1962, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1962, n.p.).
Indeed her propensity for nature and the unification of her sculpture with the figure in the landscape prevented her from attempting absolute suppression and destruction of form. She believed that the unity of man with nature was one of the basic impulses of sculpture, and was intrinsic to the spirit and aesthetic of her work. Her identification with the figure in the landscape began at a young age with her love of the rugged, unspoilt landscape of Yorkshire, where she grew up. This increased with an almost mystical intensity, with her move to the Cornish coast in 1939, captivated by its weathered cliffs and headlands, its magnificent monolithic stones and wild seas, which lapped upon remote shores. Hepworth recalled, ‘It was during this time that I gradually discovered the remarkable pagan landscape which lies between St Ives, Penzance and Land’s End: a landscape which still has a very deep effect on me, developing all my ideas about the relationship of the human figure in landscape – sculpture in landscape and the essential quality of light in relation to sculpture ... I was the figure in the landscape and every sculpture contained to a greater or lesser degree the ever changing forms and contours embodying my own response to a given position in that landscape ... There is no landscape without the human figure: it is impossible for me to contemplate pre-history in the abstract’ (quoted in H. Read (intro.), Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London, 1952, n.p.).
Hepworth saw that this unification of nature and man was most effectively portrayed through the utilisation of standing, upright forms, which spoke of a human element. She explained, ‘The forms that have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feelings towards the human being standing in the landscape)’ (quoted in exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth: an Exhibition of Sculpture from 1952-1962, ibid.). In Two Forms in Echelon Hepworth deploys her archetypal standing form, choosing here to depict two forms, which sit harmoniously side by side one another. This partnering of forms hints at a generational correlation; their pairing alluding to a maternal or marital relationship. This notion is supported by Peter Murray who states that Hepworth’s works should be viewed as ‘equivalents of the relationships of one person to another - man to woman, mother to child, or of each of us to the natural landscape’ (Exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1980, p. 7).
The introduction of two forms not only encourages a dialogue on the relationship between forms but also allows for the artist’s exploration into the manipulation of space, which is seen to powerful effect in Two Forms in Echelon. Here Hepworth instils a sense of spatial tension between the two forms, transforming the space in between them into intermediate or anti-forms, allowing the ‘negative’ space to become as equally powerful as the mass. Henri Frankfort, archaeologist and critic, spoke of the power of negative space in the artist’s work, he described; ‘Even as in music, not only sounds but silences enter into the rhythm of the composition, so matter and empty space form in their harmony of these carvings’ (ibid., p. 61). This sense of quiet was important to Hepworth who strove for what she described as a ‘silent’ element within her work, citing Mondrian and Brancusi as leaders of this practice. This was achieved through the introduction of apertures into her work, which as illustrated in Two Forms in Echelon, allowed for the interplay of solid and void, unifying the internal and external and integrating the sculpture with its surroundings.
By piercing the mass space and light could not only circulate around but through Hepworth’s sculptures. As seen in the present work, where she deploys two central holes, this brought an inner life and energy to the enclosed form. Jeanette Winterson explained, ‘Hepworth made the hole into a connection between different expressions of form, and she made space into its own form’ (Exhibition catalogue, ‘The Hole of Life’ in Barbara Hepworth Centenary, Tate, St Ives, 2003, pp. 19-20). Hepworth herself described this process as conveying, ‘a sense of being contained by a form as well as containing it’ (M. Gale and C. Stephens (ed.), Barbara Hepworth works in the Tate Gallery Collection and Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives, London, 1999, p. 200). In this method a new function of light and space within sculpture revealed itself, and a new aesthetic was born, which Hepworth would continue to pursue with unbound enthusiasm throughout her life. Light now became of paramount importance to Hepworth who saw it as an essential component in the apprehension of space and volume and a primeval part of life. The significance of harnessing light was reiterated by Hodin who stated, ‘The wholeness of the object lies, not … in the roundness alone, not in seclusion from the outer world, but in the penetration of light and air into the closed form, in the new entity of figure surrounding space’ (J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, London, 1959, p. 19).
This emphasis on space and light was strengthened by Hepworth’s visit to Greece and the Aegean and Cycladic Islands, with her great friend Margaret Gardiner in August 1954. Here she was struck by the Classical Greek architecture, which assimilated the perfect balance and harmony of proportion, volume and space. Her writings on the place describe in poetic intensity her thrill of experiencing the ancient architecture and the stunning wild scenery. She recalled, ‘Timeless and in space, pure in conception and like a rock to hold on to these forms in Greece have been a constant source of inspiration - Patmos in particular, where the curve of the horizon was omnipotent and the islands rose up from the water like flowers in the sun’ (A. Bowness (intro.), Barbara Hepworth, Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape, London, 1966, p. 12). One of the highlights of her trip was her visit to the Parthenon, of which she enthused; ‘the space between the columns – the depth of the fluting to touch – the breadth, weight and volume – the magnificence of a single marble and all – pervading philosophic proportions and space’ (A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London, 1987, p. 112). The effects of her visit to Greece can be seen in Two Forms in Echelon, through the purity of form and balance of her formal elements.
The origins of the title of the present work must hark back to a two piece wooden carving of 1935 with an unexpected military title of Discs in Echelon (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Discs in Echelon was sent to New York in 1936, but prior to this, a plaster cast was taken from the wood and exhibited in 1937. This was unprecedented in Hepworth's practice up to that moment and offers an indication of the work's success in her eyes. Subsequently, the work was cast as a unique aluminium piece, then latterly two casts of four bronze editions, again taken from the plaster, endorsing it as one of Hepworth's key sculptures.
Conceived in 1963 Two Forms in Echelon marks a point of great accomplishment and international success in Hepworth’s career. Building on the success of the 50s with the Festival of Britain in 1951, the retrospective exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1954 and the Grand Prix win at the 1959 São Paolo Bienal Hepworth continued to pronounce herself as one of the most accomplished and ambitious sculptors of 20th Century British art.
We are grateful to Dr Sophie Bowness for her assistance with the cataloguing apparatus for this work. Dr Sophie Bowness is preparing the revised catalogue raisonné of Hepworth’s sculpture.