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Barbara Hepworth (English 1905-1975), Maquette for Winged Figure, 1940-1. Brass, painted on front and stuccoed on back, and wire. Gift of Ellinor Belding, class of 1939. 1957.8.2.

Angelic Gesture

Today’s post comes from Justine Paradis, class of 2013 and Art Center Student Docent.

Barbara Hepworth’s Maquette for Winged Figure (c. 1940–1) was created, as the title suggests, as a preliminary model for a larger sculpture that was eventually installed on the second story exterior of the John Lewis Building on Oxford Street in London. The final Winged Figure is aluminum and almost six meters in height, looming tall over passersby below. Her maquette is powerful on its own, regardless of size, for its internal exploration of figure and gesture.

Hepworth (1903­­–1975) was a British modernist sculptor. Although much of her early work is abstract, Maquette for Winged Figure represents her figural work. The concave brass wings are stuccoed on the back as if weathered, while their front is painted. The wings invite light to permeate the work through naturalistic perforations in the brass sheet. The viewer’s gaze can pass into and throughout the inner space. Each wing arcs elegantly upward, but Hepworth denies them completion. She pinions the shape with a brutal finality: instead of finding a graceful, culminating wingtip, the audience meets a uniform, unwavering edge. Since the wings are also grounded in a brass foundation, they are not allowed to complete their shape in either direction.

The straightness of the edge is repeated in the wire cage binding the shape. Each wire stretches diagonally from the edge of one wing to the edge of the opposite, crossing in one central point. The wire convergence creates a strong focal point, but the pattern also evokes ribs, another figural and even gestural element. The cage defines a stark limit, and the hollow interior behind the cage becomes even more tangible. The wings themselves are further confined, now not only from above but also from within. While the concave wing background invites light and movement, the wire cage at the forefront is flat, denying entry.

The sculpture recalls Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920). He describes

…an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The angelic gesture in Benjamin’s description finds itself again in Hepworth’s sculpture: Klee’s wings are thrown backwards against the edge of a violent wind, while Hepworth binds hers, incomplete. The figure remains in a state of suspension, and the audience is left wanting.

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