Naum Gabo, Revolving Torsion, Fountain, 1972-3. Tate, on loan to St Thomas’ Hospital, London.
OK, I’m not suggesting that art has been censored here, but as a fantastic embodiment of Naum Gabo’s art, his Revolving Torsion, Fountain, on long term loan from Tate to St Thomas’ Hospital, has probably been switched off in line with the hosepipe bans which are (or should be) in place by now, given the imminent, if not current, drought. It is, after all, a fountain, and as much as fountains are highly decorative, they are also a profligate use of water. Having said that, when I have walked over Westminster Bridge and past St Thomas’, the fountain has only sometimes been working, but I don’t know if there is any rhyme or reason for this. I want to look at it today only partly because I am interested in the use of water as a sculptural medium, but also because its ethos is related to the work of Barbara Hepworth, the subject of my next talk (Monday 22 August at 6pm). The following week I will return to Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, The Woman in the Window, for the cut-price part 2 of my introduction Women Looking… I’m also looking forward to more talks ‘in person’ at the National Gallery for Art History Abroad. They will introduce the Winslow Homer and Lucien Freud exhibitions, on 23 September and 20 October respectively, and you can read more about those on the diary page of my website. I will repeat these talks online for those who aren’t free on those dates, or can’t make it to London, and will let you know the dates as soon as they are fixed. Sadly I can no long go on the trip to Porto this year, but AHA will be announcing next year’s tour schedule soon.
So just what is it about this fountain that is relevant to Barbara Hepworth? Before we can answer that, it would help to look at Gabo’s work, so that we know what we are talking about. Resting on a circular base is a geometric, stainless steel framework defined by straight and curvilinear elements. Numerous jets of water issue from the inner curves of the form, projecting both into and out of the sculptural structure. These jets create lines in space, a bit like a three-dimensional drawing, and they break into individual droplets, an impressionistic spray. The concave unit which faces towards us in this photograph is made up of three identical elements, almost triangular, but with the same segment of a circle cut out of each, which are welded together along the straight edges. There are more units exactly the same which go together to form a fourth projecting axis at the back of the framework. At the top the two projecting elements – flared, and looking a little like arrow heads – are braced by a slim, curving piece which you might just be able to see has a kink in it. There is a similar brace at right-angles to this one going across the bottom of the form. The framework is supported by two elements which spiral up from the circular base: the nearest lower projection is held up by one which comes in from the bottom left, and the back lower projection is supported by a unit which starts just behind the front centre (from this point of view) and slopes up to the right of the base. Of course, the best way to see this framework would be to walk around it, but it would take a lot to get you all there. However, I can help by showing you a photograph of a sculpture Gabo made some 35-40 years early, which is also part of Tate’s collection:Torsion, from 1928-36.
Made out of plastics (polymethyl methacrylate and cellulose acetate, according to Tate’s website), the sculpture espouses Gabo’s belief in using modern materials for a modern age. As most of the materials are transparent, it allows us to see the whole form, without the sculpture itself getting in the way, with the reflection and refraction of light – off and through the transparent form – turning the edges of the piece into a three-dimensional drawing, just like the jets of water in the fountain. The form of the sculpture is essentially the same as that of the fountain, with four of the cut-out triangular elements stuck together, creating four of the arrow-head projections. In this work we can see that the kink in the slim braces at the top and bottom are made of rectangular elements – opaque black here – and that, like the braces, the two black rectangles are at 90˚ to one another. The sculpture – and fountain – use a form of symmetry regularly adopted by Gabo. For me, the best way to explain it is to ask you to touch the tips of your fingers and thumbs together so that your hands form a broad, curving dome, then twist one hand a bit towards you and the other a bit away. You could then put them together so that they meet between thumb and forefinger – but don’t. This is the symmetry: a mirror image with a 90 degree rotation. It sounds rather mathematical – and it is. The beauty of the geometry, and its mapping of space, is exactly what Gabo wanted. As he said in his Realistic Manifesto in 1920, ‘we construct our work as the universe constructs its own, as the engineer constructs his bridges, as the mathematician his formula of the orbits’.
In 1916 he had made his Head No. 2 from cardboard, but this version (like everything else today, in the Tate collection) is an enlargement of the original, made in 1964 from cor-ten steel. The shape and volume of the head are mapped out by the edges of two-dimensional planar elements. The fact that it is put together – rather than carved or modelled – was also an innovation: Gabo was one of the first ‘Constructivists’, putting their works together, as the name suggests, from separate elements. He published the Realistic Manifesto with his brother, Antoine Pevsner (Gabo had changed his name to avoid confusion), and as part of it they established five ‘fundamental principals’. In the fourth they stated, ‘We renounce in sculpture, the mass as a sculptural element… we take four planes and we construct with them the same volume as of four tons of mass’. The volume that Head No. 2 occupies is not defined by the solid mass of, say, marble or bronze, but by the planes from which it is constructed. It was the definition of space which really interested them. They had already covered this in their third principal: ‘We renounce volume as a pictorial and plastic form of space; one cannot measure Space in volumes as one cannot measure liquid in yards: look at our space. . . what is it if not one continuous depth?’ Admittedly, with Head No. 2 the depth is not continuous – the planes of cardboard (1916) or steel (1964) get in the way. Not so with the plastic of Torsion, where the transparency allows you to see the continuous space, and to appreciate fully the volume which the piece occupies.
This can also be seen in Tate’s Linear Construction No. 1 of 1942-3. Made from the same colourless transparent plastic as Torsion (polymethyl methacrylate), it also utilises nylon thread, and embodies Herbert Read’s statement that Gabo’s work hovered ‘between the visible and the invisible’. Gabo was born Naum Pevsner in Briansk, Russia in 1890. Staring in 1910 he studied medicine, and then natural sciences, and then engineering in Munich, where he met fellow-Russian Wassily Kandinsky and was intrigued by the possibilities of abstract art: he started making his constructions in 1915. He returned to Russia after the Revolution in 1917 in the hope that they would welcome his revolutionary art, but inevitably this was not to be. He left for Berlin in 1922 and a decade later headed to Paris, then on to London in 1935. Among other artists, he got to know Barbara Hepworth and her second husband Ben Nicholson, following them to Cornwall in 1939, thus escaping the capital as the nation was on the brink of war. The year after the allied victory Gabo left for the States, which is where he died in 1977. It was shortly after his arrival in Carbis Bay – very close to the more artistically ‘famous’ St Ives – that he started using nylon thread, the straight lines defining curves in space in a similar way to the definition of space itself by the edges of the planes in Head No. 2.
When looking back to Revolving Torsion, Fountain all of these ideas coalesce: the construction of a sculpture from separate elements; the definition of its volume by the edges of these elements; an appreciation of the continuity of space through, in, and around the sculpture; the jets of water creating their own, complex and changing lines as the wind, weather, and water pressure also change, in many ways equivalent to the nylon threads. And yes, the water pressure does – or should – change. From a still photograph you wouldn’t be able to tell, but the title gives a clue: this is not a static piece. Unlike Torsion, the plastic embodiment of this form from 1928-36, this is Revolving Torsion, and it does – or should – revolve a full 360˚every ten minutes. At the same time the pressure of the water – and so the projection of the jets – decreases to a minimum and returns to full every 10 minutes, two cycles of change which are synchronised.
The project for a fountain went back to the 1960s. As yet another of its remarkable collection of Gabo’s works, Tate also holds Torsion (Project for a Fountain), 1960-4. Again, the precise forms of the sculpture are far clearer here than in the photograph of the fountain, which is helpful. In 1968, four years after this maquette was completed, the then director of The Tate Gallery (as it was originally called) Sir Norman Reid, visited Gabo in his studio in the States. Gabo told him about the project, and showed him this model. Long story short: Reid made it happen. Alistair MacAlpine, since the age of 21 a director of the engineering and construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons (founded by his great-grandfather) had by this time reached the grand old age of 26. He agreed to cover all of the costs. The firm drew up detailed plans, the fountain was constructed by Stainless Metalcraft Ltd between 1972-73, and on completion McAlpine gifted it to The Tate Gallery. Two years later it was installed in its present position outside St Thomas’ Hospital, where, since 2016, it has rejoiced in its new status as a Grade II listed building.
Back in 1920 the Realistic Manifesto had proclaimed:
We say . . .
Space and time are re-born to us today.
Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed.
In 1905 Einstein had published two articles on the Theory of Special Relativity. One of the things this theory tells us is that time is a fourth dimension. Artists tried to include the fourth dimension in many ways, just as the Renaissance had developed perspective to show the third. Kinetic sculptures – sculptures which move – were just one of these strategies.
Gabo had introduced movement, and therefore time, with his sculpture Kinetic Construction (Standing Wave) of 1919-20, just before the publication of the Realistic Manifesto itself (this photograph is of a replica from 1985). It is made from a steel rod – a solid, straight line. It is only its motion, created by a motor in the base, which makes it look curved, and almost transparent. It would be another fifty years before an equally eloquent statement of Gabo’s radical ideas would be realised with the creation of this magnificent fountain. It may seem sadly inappropriate now, during a time of drought, but let’s hope it won’t last long… However, none of this answers my earlier question: what relevance does this have for Hepworth? Well, you’ll have to read next week’s blog… or come to the talk on Monday, 22 August!