Single form (Antiphon) is one of the most striking and elegant examples of Hepworth’s single forms, its delicate and slender monolithic shape, evoking the grandeur and majesty of the standing human figure. Originally she carved this form in Boxwood in 1953 and the same figure was later cast in bronze in 1969, its totemic structure standing over 87 in. high. The ‘single standing form’ was a fundamental constituent in Hepworth’s oeuvre and became the archetypal Hepworth image as has the reclining figure in Henry Moore’s work. Hepworth described the importance of it in her repertoire; ‘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, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, n.p.).
This heightened awareness of the figure in relation to the landscape can be seen to correspond with Hepworth’s departure from London and her move to Cornwall with Ben Nicholson, her second husband, in August 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Cornwall’s sculptural landscape captivated the artist with its magnificent cliffs, headlands and caves, its monolithic stones and abandoned tin mines, which poetically punctuated the skyline, the effect of which can be seen in Single form (Antiphon), its softly undulated form seemingly worn by the weather, as it seems to emerge from the landscape, rising up out of the earth.
This transition was to be an ‘awakening’ of sorts for the artist who saw that the unification of man and nature was ‘one of the basic impulses of sculpture’ and intrinsic to the spirit and aesthetic of her work. This notion of man’s harmony with his natural surroundings was not new to British Art, but it was to British sculpture, which had never before accommodated these sensibilities in such a bold and abstract manner. Hepworth expressed the excitement of such discovery: ‘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 discovered that this duality between figure and landscape existed as much at home in Cornwall as it did in the Neolithic stones of Greece. Travelling to Greece and the Aegean and Cycladic Islands in August 1954, in an attempt to reconcile her grief after the death of her first child Paul the previous year, Hepworth was struck by the brilliance and warmth of the Mediterranean light, which fell upon the ancient stones and architecture. Indeed, light became of upmost importance to the artist who began to introduce apertures and hollows within her work. This can be seen to potent effect in Single form (Antiphon), where central holes allow the light to filter through the heart of the sculpture, instilling the piece with a sense of energy and life. Jeanette Winterson explored the possibilities of what such holes mean in Hepworth’s work, she describes, ‘There is a particular still centre in Hepworth ... focused energy – the still point of the turning world. Perhaps Hepworth had a more complete sense of the hole than Moore. Perhaps that was because she was a woman ... Holes were not gaps, they were connections. Hepworth made the hole into a connection between different expressions of form, and she made space into its own form ... This is liberating. This gives sculpture a fourth dimension, because we know now that space and time are not separate but have to be considered as space-time ... Hepworth’s holes are also tunnels or worm-holes making a route through time ... The hole is a way back and a way forward ... Time is the hole where we begin and end – the womb, the birth canal, the grave in the ground – and it is the Whole where our lives are played out ... Put your hand into a Barbara Hepworth hole, and you grasp this” (Exhibition catalogue, ‘The Hole of Life’ in Barbara Hepworth Centenary, Tate, St Ives, 2003, pp. 19-20).
This mention of space is important for the trip to Greece was to renew Hepworth’s interest in the harmonisation of space, volume and proportion. The apertures create a sense of spatial tension, which emphasised by the verticality of its structure, transform the negative space into intermediate or anti-forms. The hollows also allow for the interplay between the solid and void, with the artist balancing matter and empty space, permitting the sculpture to dually dominate the space it occupies whilst also allowing for its integration with its surroundings. This sense of duality is apparent in the works title Single form (Antiphon), with the Greek word antiphon meaning a response, often in relation to a choir, or a psalm, usually in the form of a chant or as part of a religious ritual.
Hepworth’s preoccupation with space allows for what she defined as a ‘silent’ element that she pushed for in contemporary art, citing Mondrian and Brancusi as leaders of this practice. She wanted space to be intermittent and free, so that her sculptures would have their own solitary significance but were also part of a larger entity, engaging, and becoming one with their environment.
Single form (Antiphon) and Hepworth’s works of the 1950s can be seen to be moving closer towards a more pure, abstract aesthetic, which echoed that of the 1930s; their forms reduced to simple geometric shapes, which highlighted the tautness of volume in space, along with the delineation of line and plane. This can be seen to be, in part, resultant of the life she shared with Ben Nicholson, whom she married in 1938, who opened her up to a free conception of form and colour and a more imaginative approach to the object in the landscape. Her concentration in abstract form has also been linked to the influence of Naum Gabo who came to England in 1935 and became a close friend and neighbour of the couple in Hampstead. His stress on clarity, precision and purity of style impressed Hepworth, as did his emphasis on the importance of the artist’s emotional attitude to material. This can be seen in Single form (Antiphon), where any unnecessary detail has been stripped away to leave a pure, clean, exacting aesthetic. Working with Gabo on the book Circle, along with architect Leslie Martin and later Piet Mondrian, who lived in London from 1938-1940, she certainly would have been exposed to their ideas of neo-plasticism and constructivism, however they were too absolutist for Hepworth to fully adopt. One can, however, see the lasting influence of Constantin Brancusi, who she met in 1933 when visiting his studio in Paris with 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, distill 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).
Single form (Antiphon) was created during a period of great success for the artist. In 1950 Hepworth was nominated to represent Britain at the 25th Venice Biennale and in the same year two of her sculptures were commissioned for the Festival of Britain. Retrospective exhibitions of her work were held in Wakefield in 1951 and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1954. Hepworth was also awarded second prize in The Unknown Political Prisoner competition organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and was awarded a C.B.E in 1958. She received a number of large bronze commissions such as Meridian for State House, London in 1959 and later that year was awarded the Grand Prix at the 5th São Paulo Bienal, Brazil.
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.