Conceived in marble in 1971, and cast in bronze a year later, Head (Ra) is an exceptional example of Hepworth’s mature work. Highly abstract yet imbued with nature, the sculpture characterises Hepworth’s lifelong preoccupation with form, landscape and light.
The undulating surface recalls the rippling waves off the coast of Hepworth’s beloved Cornwall, whilst the green element brings to mind the rocks and craggy coves of the coastline that so greatly inspired her. At the heart of the work, a striking piercing allows light to flood through from behind; a point of calm and stillness at the centre of a swirling whirlpool. It is in polished, pierced forms such as Head (Ra) that we see some of the artist's most accomplished works, as Hepworth creates a perfect tension between light and darkness, solidity and weightlessness, and the organic and inorganic.
The piercing of the form was an essential device in Hepworth’s sculptural vocabulary, and was a technique she had begun to use in the early 1930s to let light and air into her work. The use of negative space was to become a hallmark of her career, and is widely celebrated as one of her greatest contributions to abstract art. In Head, (Ra), Hepworth uses the piercing to explore the counterplay between mass and space, giving the work a dynamic tension. The polished surface allows the light to ripple across the sculpture, drawing us through the pierced hole and emphasising the dynamism of its sculptural form.
The title of the work also has more ancient and symbolic connotations, ostensibly making reference to the Egyptian sun god, Ra. Egyptian iconography had fascinated Hepworth since her early career; she often recalled fondly that it was the ancient Egyptian carvings she saw in a slideshow at school that first inspired her to become a sculptor. With its luxurious golden finish, the surface of Head (Ra) seems to almost radiate the sun-god’s light. From 1969 onwards, Hepworth began to increasingly refer to the sun and other celestial bodies in her sculpture; this was the year of the moon landings, and the culmination of a decade of incredible scientific development, the exploration of which expanded Hepworth’s own conception of landscape. What resulted was a group of beautifully tactile sculptures, which simultaneously feel rooted in the ancient, yet modern in conception, and in Head (Ra), we see the culmination of this artistic vision.
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.