Tiki, 1969, is an exceptional carving and one of Hepworth's finest works from this period. Carved from beautiful Irish green marble, Hepworth displays her aptitude and understanding of this material, utilising its smooth finish and undulating green tone, punctuated by a series of rhythmic veined lines, to create a powerfully sinuous and organic work. Her adoration 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.
Hepworth first discovered direct carving in 1924 as a student in Rome, under the tutelage of marmista (master-carver), Giovanna Ardini, having won the West Riding scholarship to work in Italy for a year. She was to hold a deep-rooted passion for carving, which she explored throughout her career, particularly favouring marble. She expressed her adoration for the material to the critic Josef P. Hodin in 1964: 'I love marble especially 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' (B. Hepworth, quoted in J.P. Hodin, 'Barbara Hepworth and the Mediterranean Spirit', in Marmo Rivista Internazionale d'Arte e Architettura, no. 3, December 1964, pp. 59, 62). This appreciation for the stone is evident in Tiki, with Hepworth choosing Irish green marble, celebrated for its highly variegated colour and striking green tone.
Hepworth particularly enjoyed the physical process of carving, relishing in the rhythms and motions that occurred in the act of cutting into, and shaping the material with her own hands, and even the sounds of the material, 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. Explaining the importance of this connection, she stated: ‘I do not like using mechanical devices or automatic tools. Even if the work was done ten times more easily I should miss the physical pleasure of direct contact with every part of the form from the beginning to the end’ (B. Hepworth, interviewed in ‘Approach to Sculpture’ in Studio, London, October 1946, p. 34). One of Hepworth’s key strengths was her ability to emphasise the physical potential of matter and to make the properties of stone a form of expression, which can be seen in the present work. 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’ (B. Hepworth, quoted in K. de Barañano, exhibition catalogue, Barbara Hepworth, Valencia, Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, 2004, p. 19).
In Tiki 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 then 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’ (B. Hepworth, 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 Tiki 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. Penelope Curtis saw that this return was a conscious effort of the artist to revisit her most famed and popular work. She believes that in the late 1950s and 1960s Hepworth became increasingly aware of her historical figure in the canon of Modern British art and saw that her most successful period, or her ‘strongest card’, was her pre-war work. This awareness was born out of the retrospective exhibition of Hepworth’s work at the Tate Gallery in 1958, where a staggering 226 works were shown and the 1965 exhibition Art in Britain 1930-40 Centred Around Axis, Unit One, where she exhibited 20 pieces from that period.
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 between 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 the 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 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)’ (B. Hepworth, quoted in ibid.).
Hepworth’s preference for a single upright form is emphasised by the title Tiki, which in Maori mythology is the first man created by either Tumatauenga or Tane, and is often a large stone or wooden carving in humanoid form. Standing at over 24 inches high, punctuated by three circular inserts, two of which Hepworth has painted for further emphasis, the work is an impressive and rare example of a unique marble work of this period. What resonates in Tiki, highlighted by the Irish green marble, 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’ (B. Hepworth, quoted in J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, London, 1959, p. 23).
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.