Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975


The Estate of Barbara Hepworth
Private Collection


1970, London, Marlborough Fine Art, Barbara Hepworth: Recent Work: Sculpture, Paintings, Prints, Feb. - March 1970, cat. no. 23
On long term loan to the Hepworth Wakefield, until 2019


Adrian Stokes, Barbara Hepworth: Recent Work: Sculpture, Paintings, Prints, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, 1970, cat. no. 23, pp. 23 and 29 (illus.)
Alan Bowness, ed., The Complete Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-1969, Lund Humphries, 1971, cat. no. BH484, pl. 185 (illus.)
Central to Barbara Hepworth’s art is an engagement with the raw elements of nature. The texture of stone, the coincidence of tree branches, the rhythmic movement of the tide, and even the formal quality of the night sky were formative influences upon her. She settled in St Ives with her second husband Ben Nicholson in 1939, remaining there for the rest of her career, and Disk with Strings (Moon) was made in 1969 at Trewyn Studio – a large workspace in the centre of the town which Hepworth had acquired in 1949.

Trewyn has an extensive garden and overlooks the harbour of St Ives Bay. The movement of the tide is a determining characteristic of the St Ives peninsula where Hepworth lived and worked; when the waters recede and give place to rock pools and mud, the quality of the light shifts and reduces. As the waters return, the area brightens with reflected light. From her raised situation above the Bay, these regular changes of environment provided an imaginative spur to Hepworth. In the case of Disk with Strings (Moon), the pull of lunar gravity provided a direct connection with the artist’s Cornish surroundings and the quiet movements of the tide. The celestial shape of the work – the circularity of the aluminium disk and, in turn, the two circular perforations therein – emerged partly from this meaningful engagement with the place.

Hepworth first started using string in her sculptures of the late 1930s. Though this innovation to modernist sculpture was used slightly earlier by Hepworth’s friend Naum Gabo and her contemporary Henry Moore, her own use of string served a distinctive artistic purpose. In a remark to Herbert Read of 1952, she suggested that ‘[t]he strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills’ – in short, they were a metaphor for her deeply personal response to the elements.

In Disk with Strings (Moon), the strings might similarly be regarded as a physical manifestation of the artist’s personal, emotional response to the moon. The strings intervene between the viewer and the subject, placing the artist between us and the named subject-matter. In the process, the moon is transformed and one is able to see it as if we ourselves were the artist. Furthermore, the formal character of the sculpture is greatly enhanced by the delicate and rhythmic criss-cross of the strings, which provides a subtle counterpoint to the comparatively static and physically robust sphere of aluminium.

In representational terms, Disk with Strings (Moon) registers several different visual phenomena found in nature. When viewed from the front, the two halves of the concave disk have subtly different colour values. Though the brushed aluminium surface is uniform all over the work, a viewer perceives two different values because the two halves of the sculpture reflect the light differently. While the forward-facing half of the disk reflects the light directly into the viewer’s eye, the other canted half reflects light away and therefore appears comparatively darker. In consequence, Hepworth was deftly able to suggest at once the visible portion of the moon and its dark side, which on clear nights is visible in outline only. A further phenomenon suggested by Disk with Strings (Moon) is that of the moon reflected in water; the strings that criss-cross the surface of the disk might be regarded as ripples at the surface, gently distorting the shape of the orb.

Hepworth was not alone in her fascination with the moon and the planetary scale of Nature. The moon is one latent source that lies behind the circles that recur in the reliefs of her husband Ben Nicholson. Like Hepworth, Nicholson was inspired by the bodies of water that surrounded St Ives and in one particular work he even alluded to a moonrise taking place over the bay. The idiosyncratic titling of this work – Disk with Strings (Moon) – suggests a debt to Nicholson’s habit of titling his own work, using a literal description followed by an allusive or poetic association in brackets.

This work was first exhibited at a solo exhibition of Hepworth’s held at Marlborough Fine Art in 1970. It was displayed with Disc with Strings (Sun) – a work that was evidently conceived as a companion piece to this work. While Disc with Strings (Moon) is made from aluminium, Disc with Strings (Sun) is made from bronze. The contrasting effects of warmth and coolness suggest the relation of the two named celestial bodies.