Dr. Sophie Bowness will include this work in her forthcoming revised Hepworth catalogue raisonné under the catalogue number BH 510.
"Sculpture is a three-dimensional projection of primitive feeling: touch, texture, size and scale, hardness and warmth, evocation and compulsion to move, live and love" (Hepworth, quoted in A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, London, 1998, p. 97)
"Carving to me is more interesting than modelling, because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration. Each material demands a particular treatment and there are an infinite number of subjects in life each to be recreated in a particular material. In fact, it would be possible to carve the same subject in a different stone each time, throughout life, without a repetition of form" (Hepworth, "Contemporary English Sculptors," The Architectural Association Journal, April 1930, vol. XLV, no. 518, p. 14).
With its richly colored surface and juxtaposing convex and concave planes, Green Head reflects the distinctive shift which occurred in Barbara Hepworth’s oeuvre during the 1960s and 1970s, as she returned to direct carving on an intimate scale after almost a decade focused on bronze casting and monumental public sculptures. From the earliest stages of her career, Hepworth held a deeply rooted passion for carving, a technique she had first discovered during an extended sojourn to Italy as a young student in the 1920s. She often expressed her enjoyment of the physical process of the technique, the rhythms and motions that occurred in the act of cutting into and shaping the material with her own hands, even the sounds of the stone or wood as it yielded to her tools. She believed that working directly with the material in this way allowed her a more intimate relationship with the medium, enabling her to achieve a deeper understanding of its unique personality. It was this direct contact with the material, the physicality and tactile nature of the process of carving, that Hepworth wished to reconnect with in sculptures such as Green Head, as she began to revisit subjects and materials which had occupied her during the earliest stages of her artistic career.
Key to this revival within Hepworth’s work was the re-emergence of colored marble as a primary material in the artist’s sculptures. In her youth, Hepworth had explored a great variety of stones, both indigenous and exotic, commonplace and exceedingly rare, alongside her first husband John Skeaping. Indeed, one critic reviewing their joint exhibition at Tooth’s Gallery in 1930 commented that the catalogue read “at first like a geological and forestry exhibition” (quoted in S. Bowness, Barbara Hepworth, Stone Sculpture, exh. cat., Pace Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 8). However, marble soon emerged as a favorite material—in 1964 she proclaimed a distinctive preference for the geologically rich stone, telling the critic J.P. Hodin: “I love marble specially because of its radiance in the light, its hardness, precision and response to the sun… Marble is indeed a noble material, it has a most exceptional sensitivity and delicacy as well as a tremendous strength” (quoted in ibid, p. 5). In keeping with the retrospective nature of her work during the 1960s and 1970s, Hepworth began incorporating sensuous, colored stones into her oeuvre once again, sourcing a variety of marbles from Ireland, Portugal and Sweden. In Green Head, an exquisite piece of Irish green marble drawn from the quarries of the West of Ireland is employed by the artist to create a polychromatic, dynamic sculpture. This highly-polished stone carries the distinctive veins of olive green serpentine so characteristic of Irish green marble, their fluid lines rippling across the sculpture in meandering bands, overlapping and interlacing with darker ribbons of black and brown as they travel around the elegant curves of the sculpture.
Hepworth plays with the naturally variegated character of this stone, introducing a pair of concave indentations to the surface of the sculpture in order to enhance the interplay of light and shadow on the colored marble, while also revealing the continuous path of the natural pigment as it permeates the stone. Carved into opposing sides of the stone, these oval indentations are executed in different dimensions, one slightly larger and deeper than the other, giving each “face” of the sculpture a distinctly individual character. While the title and overall shape of the composition may suggest a figurative source, the sculpture is defiantly abstract, reflecting the evolution of the subject in Hepworth’s oeuvre in the intervening decades following its first emergence in her art. As she explained in the 1940s: “I have always been interested in oval or ovoid shapes. The first carvings were simple realistic oval forms of the human head or of a bird. Gradually my interest grew in more abstract values—the weight, poise, and curvature of the ovoid as a basic form” (quoted in S. Bowness, ed., Barbara Hepworth, Writings and Conversations, London, 2015, pp. 32-33). It is this poise, this internal balance and inherent elegance of the oval that Hepworth seems to have been searching for in the current sculpture, carefully analyzing the distribution of weight and curvature within the piece to accurately capture the pure essence of the shape.
One of the most appealing aspects of Green Head lies in its distinctly organic character, as the gentle curves and smooth surface of the finished sculpture recall that of a pebble or stone found on the shoreline, its edges softened, its contours smoothed, as a result of natural erosion by the elements. Indeed, Hepworth was fascinated by the formal qualities of the stones she discovered and collected on her beach walks during the holidays she took along the English coast, especially their unexpected shapes and delicate surfaces. Writing to her future husband Ben Nicholson in 1931, she explained that she had filled multiple boxes with stones that she had discovered on a trip to Norfolk with her family, which she planned to transport back to her studio in London for further examination. The soft, silky texture of these stones inspired Hepworth to seek a finish in her sculptures that resembled “a surface eroded by sea and rain or polished by the wind” (quoted in S. Bradwell, “Barbara Hepworth,” Arts Review, May 1975, p. 308). This finish introduces a heightened sense of tactility to Green Head, with Hepworth’s skillful manipulation of the colored marble encouraging an intimate connection through the caress of a hand. As such, the sculpture seems to reflect the artist’s belief that the sensation of touch was integral to the appreciation of a piece of sculpture, endowing forms with a different sense of life and vitality than that achieved through vision alone.