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Sculptures reveal their material worth

EXHIBITIONS Carving Mountains: Modern Stone Sculpture in England 1907-1937 At Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, until 26 April and the De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea from 2 May until 28 June

In the early years of the twentieth century, the arts were striving to discover new grounds from which to work. In sculpture there was a view that the nineteenth century's 'morbid simulation of flesh' was descended, through the Renaissance, from Classical Greek sculpture, and that the translation of a modelled clay piece into stone by the use of the pointing machine crucially disconnected the completed piece from the process of its conception. As Henry Moore declared, the new century must shake off the old by the 'removal of the Greek spectacles from the eyes of the modern sculptor'. The route to this revival was to be found through a return to direct carv ing in stone.

This exhibition recounts the explorations of sculptors working in England during the formative years of the Modern Movement. It assembles works by Gill, Epstein and GaudierBrzeska, who established the ground, and then moves on to Frank Dobson (who proves, along with John Skeaping, to be a pivotal figure), and concludes with Moore and Hepworth.

Two of Ben Nicholson's white reliefs stand as enigmatic grace notes to the rest.

By returning to carving, the nature of material was re-established as a fundamental influence on the work. Gill wrote that: 'stone carving is conceiving things in stone and conceiving them as made by carving.

They are not only born but conceived in stone; they are of stone in their inmost being as well as their outermost existence.' For Moore: 'Every material has its own individual qualities. It is only when a sculptor works direct, when there is an active relationship with his material, that the material can take its part in the shaping of an idea.'

In a sequence of work which tells the story of the transformation of art from figurative to abstract, from Epstein's exquisite bas-relief Mother and Child (1905-7) to Moore's Carving and Two Forms (both 1936) and Hepworth's Conoid, Sphere and Hollow III (1937), it is the sense of material, its richness and diversity, which the show most powerfully transmits. In a group of torsos by Gaudier-Brzeska, Hepworth and Dobson, the materiality, and the artists' response to it, is a fundamental source of the distinctions between them. Similarly, the close juxtaposition of Moore's Half-figure (1932) in Armenian stone and Hepworth's Figure of a Woman (1929-30) in Corse Hill stone, the one veinous and polished, the other monolithically textured, draws out, through the similarity of subject and posture, the expressive potential of material.

It is in the abstract works with which the exhibition concludes that the essence of material is most emphatically revealed. In Hepworth's Three Forms (1935), her use of pristine Serravezza marble is the essential complement to the calm of the forms in their precisely calculated disposition on their white platform.

It is also in this final room that Nicholson's white reliefs are hung. In addition to making an important point about the connection between his formal explorations in the 'easier' medium of carved board and the sculpture of Hepworth and Moore at this period, the contrast between the artful immateriality of Nicholson's work and the intense materiality of the carvings beautifully stresses the significance of the latter.

All of this bears upon questions in architecture, of the relationship between material and expression, of the value of 'truth to material' - but most compelling is the sense of profound presence which is communicated by this assembly of beautiful objects, rendered in natural material. Henry Moore's Head and Shoulders (1927) in Verde di Prato is breathtaking. Kettle's Yard is offering us a rich treat.

Dean Hawkes is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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