MOORE, HEPWORTH AND GABO AND THE EARLY YEARS OF THE STRINGS.
Between 1937 and 1942, strings form the one, instantly recognisable stylistic thread that unites, however tenuously, the drawings, sculptures and constructions of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo. For Moore the years of stringed sculptures began in 1937 with the beechwood Stringed Relief (LH182) (fig. 1) and ended in the spring of 1940 when he completed The Bride, lead and wire (LH215, The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Head 1939, lead and wire, was created in the third of the four consecutive years of the stringed figures.
While it is important to try to establish the chronology of the first stringed sculptures produced by Moore, Hepworth and Gabo, who got there first is, as in the creation and evolution of Cubism by Braque and Picasso, of little relevance. Moore's 1937 Stringed Relief holds the unassailable position as the first three-dimensional stringed sculpture produced by our triumvirate. Second place is less certain. On a conceptual level, that is to say in his drawings, Gabo introduced 'strings' as early as 1933, in Sketch for a Stone Carving (fig. 2, Tate, London), in which straight lines splay out from the pointed form within the hole or hollowed out space of the sculpture. In several of his constructions of 1936-37 Gabo incised lines on some of the surfaces of the transparent rhodoid (a type of plastic) and perspex. The transition from incised lines to strings was first realised in Model for 'Linear Construction in Space No. 1, celluloid with silk and elasticated thread. It is dated '(1938)/1942', the date in parentheses is more doubtful (fig. 3 shows a later variation of the work). If the earlier date is reliable, then Gabo was the second of the three sculptors to create a three-dimensional stringed work. But if the more probable 1942 date is correct, then Barbara Hepworth's first use of strings, in Sculpture with Colour, White, Blue with Red Strings of 1939 (destroyed, plaster with colour and strings BH113A) (fig. 4) - the same year as Moore's Head - wins the silver medal.
In my many discussions with Moore about the sources of inspiration for specific drawings and sculptures, he could be, on the one hand, extraordinarily helpful, once, for example, suggesting correctly, that a notebook sketch of a partially clad female nude was 'after' Rubens. Or, he could be coy, evasive, even secretive, prefering not to reveal his sources. Never was Moore more forthright about his debt to an outside influence as when he declared: 'Undoubtedly the source of my stringed figures was the Science Museum ... I was fascinated by the mathematical models I saw there, which had been made to illustrate the difference of the form that is halfway between a square and a circle. One model had a square at one end with twenty holes along each side, making eighty holes in all. Through these holes strings were threaded and led to a circle with the same number of holes at the other end ... It wasn't the scientific study of these models but the ability to look through the strings as with a bird cage and to see one form within another which excited me.'1
Moore described his stringed figure sculptures as 'the most abstract side of my work ...'2 This statement accurately describes some but by no means all of them. Works such as the Stringed Object of 1938 (LH187) and Stringed Ball of 1939 (LH198) are as close as Moore came to the geometrical purity of Hepworth's carvings of the mid-to late 1930s. But in those stringed figure sculptures that embody his two favourite motifs, such as Mother and Child of 1938 (LH186) (fig. 5) and Stringed Reclining Figure of 1939 (LH197), the solid forms themselves relate not to abstract concepts, but to the figurative preoccupations found in the profusion of drawings and in the sculptures of the late 1930s. In some of Moore's sculptures, the strings have a purely formal function and no one has described this better than David Sylvester:
'The string creates a transparent barrier between the space enclosed within the concaves of the sculpture and the space around the sculpture. Movement of the eye along the length of the strings sharpens awareness of the space the sculpture encloses, especially when one set of strings can be seen through another, so that a counterpoint of movement is created which quickens the vibration of the space.'3
But in a sculpture such as the Mother and Child of 1938 mentioned above, the strings connecting the eyes of mother and child and those between the mouth of the child and the mother's breasts are not simply abstract lines of force; they are tangible, and for me, profoundly moving, symbolic representations of nurturing and sight. I am reminded of the image of the eyes of the lovers in John Donne's poem 'The Extasie':
Our hands were firmly cimented
With a fast balme, which thence did spring,
Our eye-beames twisted, and did thred
Our eyes, upon one double string;
As most, if not all of Moore's sculptures of the late 1930s evolved from preliminary drawings, usually the spontaneous sketchbook studies rather than the more carefully worked sheets, I would be very surprised indeed if the lead and string Head of 1939 was not based on such a sketch. Although I have not found a drawing for Head per se (it may be lurking somewhere in those densely populated studies for sculpture of 1937-39) the form of the sculpture, but in a different configuration, has an independent life in Ideas for Sculpture 1938 (AG38.39) (fig. 6) and in Ideas for Sculpture 1939-40 (AG39-40.37) (fig. 7). In the earlier of the two drawings, the abstract stringed form, with no hint of any facial features, is positioned differently than in the later sculpture, turned on its side, as it were, balancing on the floor on the pointed forms at each end. However, in Ideas for Sculpture 1939-40 with the 'head form' in the same position as in the 1938 drawing, if the sheet is turned 90 degrees to the left, there are two distinct, circular eye-like circles and below a rectangular, mouth-like form. Could this be the sketch upon which the 1939 lead and string Head was based? It is possible, but I suspect that a more definitive drawing exists.
In Head, twelve vertical but not quite parallel strings form a very transparent curtain or veil in front of the concave, sunken face. Without the circular eyes and mouth, there would be little to suggest a human head. Even in his most abstract drawings of the mid-1930s, which seem to me to relate to the geometry of Ben Nicholson's white reliefs of 1934-35, Moore imposed minimal figurative details, such as an eye or navel, to provide links, however tenuous, with the human form. To underline my point that Head is basically an abstract shape with three facial features, in the 1939 lead and wire Mother and Child (LH200, destroyed) (fig. 8), the 'head' form has been effortlessly transformed into a torso, on top of which are perched the two heads.
Many of the stringed figure sculptures, including Head, were originally cast in lead and are therefore unique. Some of them were subsequently cast in bronze; Head was cast in 1968 in an edition of 6 +1.
'The lead figures,' Moore explained, 'came at a stage in my sculpture career when I wanted to experiment with thinner forms than stone could give and, of course, in metal you can have very thin forms ... Yet I couldn't afford in those days to make plasters and have them cast into bronze because I would have had to send them and pay a huge fee to the bronze foundry. Whereas lead I could melt on the kitchen stove and pour it into a mould myself. In fact I ruined my wife's saucepans because the lead was so heavy that it bent the handles ... But I could mould it myself and do the casting myself and it was soft enough when cast to work on it and give it a refinement; I could cut it down thinner, and finish the surface, so for me lead was both economically possible and physically more malleable.'4
That the surfaces of the malleable lead sculptures can be altered and refined far more easily than bronze, the hand of the artist is far more in evidence. In fact, Moore did not do the casting himself. The sculptor Bernard Meadows, Henry's assistant from 1936-40, has described the casting process at Burcroft, the Moores' cottage at Kingston, near Canterbury:
'Stimulated by the high cost of having maquettes and small works produced in bronze, we experimented and began ourselves to make casts in lead ... We melted lead in a saucepan on a primus stove, because at that time we were living in the depths of the country in a cottage without gas or electricity. All castings were made by the lost wax process, which meant that for every cast Moore had to make an individual wax model, or alternatively a plaster mould from which another copy of the original could be taken in wax. Because this was a long, labour-intensive process no editions were made at this time - it was only by the early 1940s that Moore began to have bronze editions made by commercial foundries.'5
Meadows' description of the ways in which the malleable surfaces of lead could be worked on suggests to me that Moore's unique lead casts fall somewhere between the complete originality of a stone or wood carving, and a bronze cast, of which the sculptor was not involved in either the casting process or the subsequent patination: 'Lead can be worked on with carpenters' tools or wood-carving tools and can be rubbed down with abrasives ... We had to work on the raw castings first with carving tools, then with rasps and files and finally with the only thing we found satisfactory - sharkskin ...'6
Moore, mistakenly I think, downplayed the brilliant inventiveness of his stringed figure sculptures: 'It became a matter of ingenuity rather than a fundamental human experience.'7 What could be more deeply human than the bonds represented by the three sets of strings in Mother and Child, 1938 (fig. 5)? For me, the early stringed sculptures and constructions of Moore, Hepworth and Gabo are among the supreme achievements of twentieth-century sculpture. Perhaps Gabo had the last word on the subject in this most delightful anecdote about Moore's stringed figures. Miriam Gabo recalled that in the late 1930s, after seeing one of Moore's sculptures in his studio, Gabo declared: 'Strings, I'll show them what to do with strings.'8
c Alan Wilkinson 2008.
1 Quoted in J. Hedgecoe (ed.), Henry Moore, London, 1968, p. 105. 2 Quoted in C. Lake, 'Henry Moore's World,' Atlantic Monthly, Boston, January 1962, p. 41.
3 See D. Sylvester, exhibition catalogue, Henry Moore, London, Arts Council, Tate Gallery, 1968, p. 105.
4 Quoted in F. Russoli, H. Moore and D. Mitchinson (eds.), Henry Moore Sculpture, London, 1981, p. 75.
5 Quoted in D. Mitchinson, Celebrating Henry Moore: Works from the Collection of The Henry Moore Foundation, London, 1988, p. 170.
6 loc. cit.
7 Quoted in C. Lake, op. cit., p. 41.
8 Quoted in M. Hammer and C. Lodder, Constructing Modernity: The Art and Career of Naum Gabo, New Haven and London, 2000, p. 288.