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Transforming Life Through Art: Naum Gabo by Emily King

25 March 2014

The artist Naum Gabo lived through unsettled times. Born in Russia in 1890, he was buffeted from one country to another by the wars and revolutions of the 20th century: to Germany, to Norway, back to Germany, to Paris, to Britain and finally to the United States. He was deeply affected by the violent events taking place in Europe, particularly those of World War II. Spending the early Forties as a refugee in Cornwall, he wrote in his journal, ‘I am a silhouette against the background of the volcanic conflagrations of history.’ Yet, for all the surrounding turbulence, Gabo’s artistic concerns remained constant. From his breakthrough in 1915 to the final pieces made just before his death in 1977, his emphasis on volume above mass, his interest in construction over carving, and his conception of sculpture as an expression of space did not waver.

Currently on show in the permanent collection on the fourth floor of Tate Modern is a strikingly modest sculpture made by Gabo to illustrate his principles. Titled ‘Two Cubes (Demonstrating the Stereometric Method)’, it consists of one 305mm cube made of painted wood and another of exactly the same scale and materials in which the vertical sides have been replaced by two intersecting diagonals. While the first cube suggests a solid mass, the other expresses the form’s inner space. The sculpture is dated 1930, but in Gabo’s case this kind of detail is questionable. Not only did he date pieces according to the moment of their conception rather than that of their making, he also remade and reworked certain pieces over and over again. One such work is ‘Head No. 2’, a human bust formed from interlocking planes. Starting life in Norway in 1916, where Gabo was sitting out World War I, it was originally a small model made from cardboard because that was the only material available to the artist during the conflict. Fifty years later the piece made its last outing in the United States, this time standing two metres high in Corten steel.

The chronology of Gabo’s sculptures is not the only uncertainty in the artist’s biography. His birth date, apparently 17 August 1890, was likely falsified as a means of avoiding military conscription, and the thinking behind his name change, from Naum Nehemia Pevsner to Naum Gabo, is unclear. The motive was to distinguish himself from his older sculptor brother, born Natan Pevsner and known as Antoine Pevsner, but the derivation of Gabo remains a matter for speculation.

Gabo also adjusted facts about his father’s engineering career and stashed away bodies of work, much of which was only discovered after his death. Less than subterfuge, this behaviour reflects the early Modernists’ faith in the potential of a blank historical slate. Gabo was active in both the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions and believed throughout his life that art could transform the experiences of ordinary men and women. In 1920 he wrote and published a text titled The Realistic Manifesto. Far from the sense of the real espoused a few years later by the Socialist Realists painters, Gabo’s reality was a matter of physical truth. ‘Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and on which therefore art must be built,’ he pronounced.

Although faithful to a single set of artistic principles, Gabo was always on the lookout for new materials. In the Forties he started using nylon filament in his work, often in combination with transparent Perspex, with the aim of achieving the most ethereal form possible. Based in Britain at the time, Gabo was influenced by fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in the adoption of string, but he used the material much more extensively, to the point where ‘stringing’ is identified with his work as a whole. Apparently, of his own pieces his favourite was ‘Linear Construction No.2’, conceived in 1942. Two identical planes of curvilinear transparent Perspex intersected at right angles and strung together from their outer edges, the sculpture is a complex and beautiful set of forms within forms, each one created by a mass of tiny filaments.

If you go and see ‘Two Cubes’, when you leave Tate Modern you should walk west along the Thames. Around a mile or so along you will come across Gabo’s ‘Revolving Torsion’ fountain just opposite the Houses of Parliament in the garden of St Thomas’s Hospital. In this piece Gabo used narrow jets of water in place of string to create a sense of volume. Made in 1973, it was intended to rotate once every 10 minutes, but, sadly, these days it remains still. All the same, the pumping water creates a powerful sense of permeable space. Set in the centre of a square lawn, the fountain is surrounded by benches occupied by hospital patients, staff and visitors. As a whole, the garden is a pleasing balance of dynamism and calm. Here Gabo achieved both his goals: space is elucidated and day-to-day life made better.


Emily King is a freelance design writer and curator who writes for publications including Frieze and The Gentlewoman.

  • Linear Construction No. 2, 1970-1 © Tate, London 2014