Single Form, 1961-4 outside the United Nations Building, New York. Source: www.barbarahepworth.org.uk
Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld‘, the former Secretary General of the United Nations. He was killed when the aircraft in which he was a passenger crashed during a mission to Africa on 18 September 1961.
Hammarskjöld was an admirer of the British artist Barbara Hepworth and they had corresponded by letter and met face to face. He’d talked about getting Hepworth to produce a work for the UN headquarters and after his death his successor, U That, commissioned Hepworth to create a memorial.
According to Sally Festing in her biography “Barbara Hepwoth: A life of forms”, Hammarskjöld had praised Hepworth’s “Single Form (September)” an abstract shape carved from walnut.
Single Form (September) 1961 Source: Tate website
Given it’s date of creation (1961) and its title, September being the month in which he died, it seems doubtful to me that he would have actually seen the piece. Perhaps he had seen sketched. According to an article on the Tate website, Hepworth had implied that they had discussed her ideas for the piece and, in the article it’s suggested that
“Whether or not Hammarskjöld saw Single Form (September), the consequences of his friendship with Hepworth led to the commission for the Single Form, 1961-4 at the United Nations.”
It’s a simple piece, made from a particularly striking piece of wood, with a circular indentation carved on the lower shoulder. The shape is partly dictated by the grain of the wood.
Hepworth produced a number of other similar pieces, cast from bronze, of various sizes culminating in the three metre high Single Form (Memorial) which is sited in Battersea Park, London. We saw a plaster used for the casting of one of the smaller versions during our recent visit to the new Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.
Single Form (Memorial) 1961-2. Version in Battersea Park, London (Source: Friends of Battersea Park website)
In the bronzes, the circular depression has become a hole punched right through the structure and it has been repositioned underneath the higher shoulder.
Hepworth decided to create a large version for the UN memorial. The final piece is 21 feet high. It’s the largest work created by Hepworth and is also the largest single piece cast by the Morris Singer Foundry, the fine art foundry commissioned to reproduce the sculpture. As well as the indentation being turned into a hole and repositioned, there are some other major differences between the massive UN piece and the earlier, carved wooden version. The overall shape is noticeably different as the proportions have been altered. The surface is rough, typical of Hepworth’s bronzes, where the pitted surface reflects the marks made during the carving of wood, and there are prominent scored lines running down and across the piece. The Battersea Park version at just over ten feet high is smaller (half size) and also doesn’t have the lines scored into the surface.
The plaster was made in Hepworth’s studio in St Ives, in the “Palais de Dance” annex. Due to it’s size, it was cast in seven separate pieces. The cuts avoided the sored lines so that they wouldn’t be spoiled. I would expect that, given its large size, the sand casting process would have been used. It took nine months to complete the transformation from plaster to bronze.
The finished work was installed in 1964 and it must have been a challenging task to ship it over the Atlantic from London to New York. As can be seen in the above picture (Source www.barbarahepworth.org.uk) some hefty lifting gear was needed. There was almost a disaster when the rope snapped when it was being lifted in a warehouse in London. The foundry had only 4 weeks to repair the damage.
Although a 3D work, it is almost two dimensional in essence. According to Penelope Curtis in her book on Hepworth for the Tate’s series on St Ives Artists
“Single form, now fattened out into an almost oblong shape, is a sophisticated interrogation into the difference between line and mass and was to work perfectly in front of the towering UN building, being both monumental and elegant; representing mass from the front and line from the side” (Page 41)
As for Hammarskjöld, there has recently been some controversy surrounding his death that’s been reported in the Guardian. He had flown out to Africa for for peace talks to try to resolve the civil war between the government of the newly-independent Congo and rebel separatists from the Katanga province, who were supported by Belgian mining interests hostile to independence. There are some suspicions that Hammarskjöld’s plane had been shot down by another aircraft and that the British Government were implicated in a cover up.