The ‘Many mathematicians began to build models out

The sculpture Pelagos, (Appendix 1) a translation of the Greek word ‘sea’, was carved by Dame Barbara Hepworth in 1946.   

It is direct wood carving approximately half a metre in height and is chiselled in elm to produce an opening spherical form. The outside has been left to show a natural wood finish and the inside painted a light blue. Connecting the two opening ends of the sphere are a series of seven taught strings which give the sculpture an association to that of a stringed instrument. 

I am going to discuss this sculpture within the context of its relationship to abstraction, form and the relationship with mathematical models and constructivism. I will be using the key text Lissitsky, E. (1998). A. and Pangeomerty. In: Charles Harrision & Paul Wood Art in Theory 1900 – 1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas . London: Blackwell. pp 303 – 307. to help analysis it 














‘Mathematically existing multidimensional spaces really cannot be visualized, neither can they be represented; in short, it is impossible to give them material form. We can only change the form of our physical space but not its structure, ie., its three-dimensionality. We cannot change the degree of curvature of our space in a real way, i.e., the square or the cube cannot be transformed into any other stable form. Only a mirage may be cable of giving us such an illusion’ Lissitsky (1998, p306.)


There is little doubt that there is a direct correlation between the abstract form of Pelagos and former mathematical models. The golden age of building mathematical models began in the mid 1800’s. Mathematicians sought to visualize their more complex mathematical theories, by giving them material form. 

 ‘Many mathematicians began to build models out of a variety of materials, including plaster, cardboard, metal and string.’ Vierling-Claassen (2010). Some fine examples of these exist today in the MIT collection (Appendix 2). It is very likely that Barbara Hepworth had sightings of these models. She mentions in 1935 that there were ‘some marvellous things in a mathematical school in Oxford-sculptural work out of mathematical equations’ Vierling-Claassen (2010). 

During the 1930’s Barbara Hepworth lived in the highly politicised area of Hampstead Heath with many other like-minded avant-garde artists, many who at the time were seeking refuge from Nazi Europe. This period was a time of new hope, a desire for change mixed with fears of totalitarianism. The abstract works produced by many artists during this time were as much political as they were aesthetic.

Hepworth a Christian Scientist, was a pivotal member of the international movement in architecture and art.   Hepworth together with husband Ben Nicholson, close friend Naum Gabo, scientist John Bernal and architect Leslie Martin sought to bring together scientists and artists with similar socialist convictions.  She was one of the two female contributors to the Circle, the International Survey of Constructivist Art, which was published in 1937. The Circle’s initial aim was to counter the influence of Surrealism following the Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. But the main objective was to promote debate on Abstraction and Constructivism in sculpture, painting and architecture. An argument central to constructive art was that the perception of space is a primary natural sense, similar to the sensations of light and sound, that the artist’s task was to heighten one’s cognisant awareness of the sensation of space so that it became a more elementary and everyday emotion.

Physicist J Bernal discussed in his article for the circle, the affinities between mathematical forms and Hepworth’s sculptures. ”There is an extraordinary intuitive grasp of the unity of a surface even extending to surfaces which though separated in space and apparently disconnected yet belong together both to mathematicians and the sculpture’ (Wilkinson A, 1996) 


During this time both Naum and Hepworth produced sculptures based on the constructivist ideas. 

‘A constructive work is an embodiment of freedom itself and is unconsciously perceived even by those who are consciously against it.’ Hepworth (2015, p.27)  

 Naum a former student in science would also have had sightings of mathematical models whilst originally studying in Russia, the birth place of constructivism. Naum’s Sculpture Linear Construction No. 1 (Appendix 3) is a typical example of the work he produced reflecting links to the mathematical models he had seen. Works seen in the London Science Museum also inspired Hepworth’s close friend and former fellow student Henry Moore to produce such works as Stringed Figure in 1938. (Appendix 3). 


Hepworth’s relocation to Cornwall at the being of the second world war was a turning point in her sculpture.  Although her work still held true to its constructivist principles grounded with her knowledge and interests of geometry, she began to respond to the pagan landscape in the area.  

In 1946, Pelagos was a direct response to the landscape specifically surrounding her whilst living in Cornwall.  It ‘is one of Hepworth’s very few landscape-inspired sculptures to relate in a detailed way to a geographical location in Cornwall – the view from her house in Carbis Bay’.  Wilkinson, A (1996) 

Although many of her sculptures prior to this period were based on ideas of free sculptural form, I would argue that it wasn’t until her move to Cornwall that her constructive forms took on a more poetic structure, much more in harmony with the outdoor setting in which they were created.  

‘I used colour and strings in many of the carvings of this time. The colour in concavities plunged me into the depth of the water, caves or shadows deeper than the carved concavities themselves. The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills’.  Hepworth (2015, p.68).  

She often referred to herself as being part of the landscape, the figure within. 

Henry Moore in comparison, was creating very different sculpture during this period, many large figurative pieces which were actively promoted by the British Council. 


“Hepworth’s other great attribute as a sculptor, was an extremely fastidious, refined, but wholly realistic and practical understanding of materials.’ (Roberston, B 1994) 

Pelagos is a fine example of this. With a knowledge of geometry and materials Hepworth managed to push the medium of wood to its limits in the form of an opening sphere, thus showing incredible technical skill.  Hepworth would always use a method of direct carving, allowing the material she was using to dictate the final result. With the addition of string to the sculpture, an idea undoubtedly taken from mathematical models, Hepworth managed to create a feeling of tension.  The additional use of colour and shadow within the sculpture can be likened to the depths of water and caves found close to her studio and were added to draw the viewer into the landscape that it represented.   

‘A contemporary constructive work does not lose by not having a particular human interest, drama fear or religious emotion. It moves us profoundly because it represents the whole of the artist’s experience and vision, his whole sensibility to enduring ideas, his whole desire for a realization of these ideas in life and a complete rejection of the transitory and local forces of destruction. It is an absolute belief in man, in landscape and in the universal relationship of constructive ideas.’ Hepworth (2015, p.26) 


El Lissitsky stated that ‘the productive artist should certainly be allowed to expound any theory he wishes, provided his work remains positive.’ Lissitsky (1992, p.305) One could argue that within Pegalos Hepworth has not only managed to do this but has also managed to visualize the ‘multidimensional space’, something which El Lissitsky stated was not possible. Or perhaps with the use of geometry and artistic skill, she has drawn on both on her appreciation of mathematical models, as well as her perception of landscape and understanding of material in order the create only the illusion that Lissitsky mentions to heighten an awareness of space and provoke everyday emotion.