Prominent member of group of college sculptors influenced by Rayner Hoff between the wars, known as the 'Hoff School'. Often revolving around the theme of lovers, her sculptures are noted for the potency of activity and participation by her female figures.
sculptor, was born in Sydney on 20 June 1913 and was educated at Bondi Public School. She joined the art classes of the English sculptor Rayner Hoff at East Sydney Technical College in 1928, aged fifteen, and subsequently became a prominent member of a successful and coherent group of college sculptors strongly influenced by Hoff, which dominated sculptural production in Sydney between the wars. She completed her Diploma of Art (Sculpture Honours) in 1933, then worked as a part-time teacher at the College in 1934-5 and assisted Hoff on a number of civic commissions, including the Anzac Memorial, Sydney. She exhibited with the NSW Society of Artists, where her work attracted widespread praise. In 1935 she won the NSW Travelling Scholarship – the first woman artist, and the first sculptor, to receive this award.
Tribe travelled to London and studied at the Royal Academy Schools, the City and Guilds School of Art, the Regent Street Polytechnic and St Martin’s School of Art over the next decade. During World War II she worked in the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works recording stately homes and monuments. She also modelled a series of Royal Australian Air Force portrait busts. In about 1945 she and her husband, the architect John Singleman (her superior at the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments), moved to Sheffield, Cornwall, where she set up a studio as well as teaching sculpture part-time at the Penzance School of Arts for 40 years (1948 to July 1988). Her husband (died 1961) studied under the renowned local potter Bernard Leach and set up his own practice.
Tribe exhibited widely in England and Australia and is represented in public and private collections in both countries. She was a member of the British Society of Portrait Sculptors, the Society of Women Artists, London, and a fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Retrospective exhibitions of her work were mounted in 1979 at the City Museum and Art Gallery, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent (the first public gallery to purchase her work), and in 1981 at the Guilford House Gallery, Guilford. Recent exhibitions in Australia were held in 1986 (von Bertouch Gallery, Newcastle) and 1987 (Barry Stern, Sydney).
During her sixty-year career in England, Tribe, an eclectic artist who experimented widely with different media, continued to be preoccupied with the themes of human life-energy, sexuality and growth first seen in her sculpture of the 1930s in Sydney. Apart from a brief interest in abstraction in the 1950s, she also retained her commitment to figurative traditions. Teaching commitments and lack of money prevented a return visit to Australia until 1966, when her sister helped her financially to see Sydney and her family again. Everyone in the art world had forgotten her, and the plaster sculptures she had left in storage at East Sydney Technical College had disappeared (mosly never to reappear despite Tribe spending years searching for them, McDonald states). At about this time she became interested in early Thai sculpture and, through a series of coincidences, visited Thailand regularly betweem 1968 and 1995. She also began to return to Australia regularly, visiting other parts of the world en route to both countries. In 1990 she met the Sydney collector and art patron John Schaeffer who invited her to stay, introduced her to international dealers and acquired work for his home. In 1991 the Mall Galleries, London, showed 80 of her works in the exhibition 'Alice to Penzance’. The Society of Portrait Sculptors awarded her the Jean Masson Davidson medal in 1998 and in 1999 Patricia R. McDonald’s biography of Tribe, underwritten by Schaeffer, was launched at the AGNSW in association with Deborah Edwards’s exhibition This Vital Flesh. The Sculptures of Reyner Hoff and His School .
Barbara Tribe died on 21 October 2000, aged 87. She is buried beside her husband in the village of Paul, Cornwall. In her will she provided for the establishment of a charitable trust to encourage sculptors in Australia, with John Schaeffer as trustee.
Barbara Tribe, Rayner Hoff and other sculptors of the 'Hoff School’ were strongly influenced in the 1930s by vitalist principles concerning the importance of the creative/procreative forces in human existence as revealed primarily in the relationship between male and female. Under this influence, and drawing heavily from classical models and mythology, they created sculptures which were unprecedented in Australia in terms of their portrayal of explicit and active sexuality.
The subject of lovers, which remained a consistent theme, was marked in Tribe’s art by the role of equal activity she attributed to the female. Lovers (1936-37, Art Gallery of New South Wales), for example, is an exceptional image of joyous, equal participation and complementary sexuality, and images of active female eroticism proliferate in her sculpture of the 1930s. Her Bacchanalia (1933) portrays woman as an intensely active participant in the human rituals of sexual abandon. Such images (which may be aligned to contemporary social realities for women) were entirely removed from the work of Australian sculptors such as Eva Benson who dealt with the female nude largely under Edwardian tenets of the erotic.
Despite-in this case-having a model (Iris Platt) in common with Norman Lindsay, Tribe’s sculptures diverged radically from the images of boudoir eroticism which characterise her fellow vitalist-influenced artist at this time. The ambiguity between the sexually adventurous nature of her work and its creation by a twenty-year-old female sculptor in Sydney ultimately led to Tribe being awarded honorary masculinity, her sculpture being constantly assessed by contemporary critics in terms of its 'extraordinary virility’.
The image of woman as an active force in the male-female relationship was extended to Tribe’s sculptures of single females, where she was preoccupied with images involving independence and sexual control. Female sexuality and erotic power in action is conveyed in her Medusa , which emphasises the strength of a cosmic, sexualised impulse through the actions of the female in relation to sexual energy. In many 'Hoff School’ sculptures, including Marjorie Fletcher’s The Fijians and Jean Broome-Norton’s Abundance , this energy in the female becomes the 'procreative drive’. Tribe’s Medusa , however, is the antithesis of Eve, the mother and source of human life; this figure thrusting backwards, her legs spread, body arched and mouth open as the 'phallic force’ of the snake curls around her arms and thigh, represents the equally seductive and powerful (but destructive) forces of death.
Medusa, the youngest, most beautiful and only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters, was punished by Athena for meeting Poseidon in her temple by having her hair turned into snakes and becoming so hideous that men were turned to stone by gazing upon her. This Medusa, however, is no frightful monster but has been represented in her more proactive, pagan manifestation of snake goddess. The snakes that are her hair are arranged into a corona like a tiara, further emphasising the majesty of her destructive, evil beauty. In the light of this and other women’s work, it is not inappropriate to conjecture that the unprecedented emphasis on the active woman in 'Hoff School’ sculpture was due to the influence of Hoff’s female students, perhaps most notably Barbara Tribe.
Note: (Heritage biography plus death details)