The tactile, feminine works of Barabara Hepworth show her intimate relationship with natureby Emma Crichton-Miller / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
It is nearly 50 years since a major exhibition of the work of sculptor Barbara Hepworth opened in London. In 1968, when Hepworth, then 65, was at the height of her international fame, the Tate organised a full retrospective. Hepworth had been created a Dame of the British Empire in 1965. A year earlier, her magisterial Single Form (1961-4), a memorial in bronze to Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, had been unveiled outside the UN Headquarters in New York. In 1975 a Guardian obituary, following her appalling accidental death in a blaze in her studio, judged her “probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day.” And yet, almost overnight, Hepworth fell from critical attention.
Throughout her career her work had been accompanied by a murmur of interpretative writings from other artists, including Henry Moore and Paul Nash, and from influential critics such as Herbert Read and Adrian Stokes, as well as by a steady stream of interviews, photographs and films. Suddenly, there was silence. It was as if the strong sea wind which she had so loved, buffeting and blowing over the Cornish peninsula where she had lived since 1939, had, on her death, abruptly dropped; as if her hard-won mastery of craft and materials, her passionate articulation of fundamental ideas about sculpture, no longer had any bearing. What had carving and abstraction to do with Richard Long’s walks or Gilbert and George’s performances as “living sculptures”? While Moore, five years her elder, managed his own transition from worldwide celebrity to elder statesman, and continued to exert a strong if often resisted influence on younger artists, Hepworth seemingly ceased to be relevant.
This summer, in Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (24th June to 25th October), Tate Britain acknowledges a new mood. Over the last 20 years, since a groundbreaking exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 1994, curated by Penelope Curtis, now ex-Director of Tate Britain and co-curator of this exhibition, a younger generation of art historians has discovered alternative ways of understanding Hepworth’s legacy. A centennial flurry of exhibitions in 2003—at the New Art Centre, Roche Court; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Wakefield City Art Gallery; and Tate St Ives, which has had guardianship since 1980 of her studio—reminded the public of the range and quality of her work. And in 2011, the Hepworth Wakefield opened in her birthplace, to show her work alongside contemporary artists from across the world. The startling juxtaposition last year of some of Hepworth’s plaster models with the plaster sculptures of Austrian artist Franz West was revelatory: a conversation of peers.
Hepworth now stands as the second most expensive female sculptor at auction of all time, behind Louise Bourgeois. Still, this Tate exhibition, with attendant shows at Hepworth Wakefield illuminating her early life and her last prolific decade, has a lot to prove. If Hepworth made sculpture for “a modern world,” what does she mean to us postmoderns?
It had once been so clear. In the catalogue of the 1968 Tate retrospective, Ronald Alley wrote: “That in the course of the 1930s British art emerged from a more or less provincial condition and became part of the international mainstream was largely due to three artists… Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.” For Alley, Hepworth formed part of a triumvirate which had seized upon the artistic ideas transforming European art and culture in the 1920s and 1930s—Russian constructivism, European abstraction and French surrealism, the architectural ideas of the German Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School— and brought them home.
As important as her willing absorption of foreign ideas was her native integrity. Brought up in Wakefield, she trained at Leeds School of Art, where carving, which was enjoying a modest revival, was taught as a technical skill, but where the main creative focus was on modelling, which Hepworth despised. Alongside Moore, her first husband, John Skeaping, and others, such as Eric Gill, Hepworth found in direct carving a means of discovering a new intimacy with materials—whether stone or, later, marble and wood—and, through that, a more profoundly physiological relationship to sculptural form. The figurative sculptures she created in the late 1920s in London were totemic, drawing much from non-European sculpture, and included the forceful upright Infant from 1929, which she carved from dark Burmese wood the year that her son, Paul Skeaping, was born. This is the first sculpture to greet you as you climb the steep stairs into her studio in St Ives—supremely convincing in its economy and power. There is not a trace of sentimentality. Hepworth once said to the critic Edwin Mullins: “In sculpture I am vertical. I always have been like that.” It sets her apart from Moore, with his languorous monumental female figures.
In the early 1930s Hepworth hit her stride when she discovered abstraction. Her idea of the figure in the landscape had always been an image of experience conceived from within rather than a literal visual interpretation. She said of her childhood in Yorkshire: “Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks—feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape.” For Hepworth, this response to landscape and sculpture ensured that her contribution to sculpture was unique and definitively feminine: “So many ideas spring from an inside response to form: for example, if I see a woman carrying a child in her arms it is not so much what I see that affects me, but what I feel within my own body. There is an immediate transference of sensation, a response within to the rhythm of weight, balance and tension of the large and small form making an interior organic whole… It may be that the sensation of being a woman presents yet another facet of the sculptural idea.” Whether or not it was her femininity that led her there, Hepworth created her first abstract sculpture, the tactile alabaster Pierced Form, in 1931, the year she first met the artist Ben Nicholson, opening up a new era in her work.
Nicholson, nine years her elder, and at the time married to Winifred Nicholson, introduced Hepworth to the European avant garde, whisking her from Pablo Picasso to Constantin Brancusi to Jean Arp to Georges Braque. Hepworth bore their triplets in October 1934. Her sculptures of this period, with their cool geometries and subtle interrelationships, reflect her ready response to international modernism. But part of what Hepworth made during this era, as this show emphasises, was her life with Nicholson in a shared domestic space and studio in Hampstead, with three infants, and the to-and-fro of inspiration between his increasingly three-dimensional carved collages and her experiments with incised line and circle. Both exhibited widely in London and abroad and helped create the seminal publications of the era—Unit One and Circle—managing public understanding of their radical work.
War terminated this ferment of activity. A week before the outbreak of war, Nicholson and Hepworth bought an old car for £17 and drove to St Ives, unable to persuade Piet Mondrian to join them. St Ives, with its Mediterranean light, wild Atlantic coast and rugged moorland, suited Hepworth. In 1937, the critic JD Bernal recognised in Hepworth’s work an affinity with the well-known Mên-an-Tol, a nearby group of megalithic standing stones with a mysterious circle cut into one. It was the wind scouring the landscape from hilltop to hilltop that first inspired Hepworth to use tensioned strings in her work. It was the crashing sea-worn caves that inspired her interiorly whorled pieces of the 1940s. At first these works were still in wood or stone, but after 1949 and the break-up of her marriage to Nicholson, when she moved into Trewyn Studio (today the Barbara Hepworth Museum), she began to work in bronze. She developed parallel studios, one devoted to carving, one to plaster-construction, enabling her to generate an astonishing range of ideas. As she put it later, “I wanted to make forms to stand on hillsides and through which to look at the sea. Forms to lie down in, or forms to climb through.” Bronze also enabled her to make sculpture for the public realm.
By now Hepworth was gaining recognition both in England and abroad. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and won the Grand Prix at the São Paulo Biennial in 1959. While anxious to improve her sales and standing internationally, she earned enough to begin to experiment with large-scale works, and with the bronze metal that had become the hallmark of the younger “geometry of fear” generation of sculptors. But where they strove to reflect the trauma of war, Hepworth always sought balance, beauty and serenity—an antidote to crisis. Unlike Moore, she always kept a human scale. Winged Figure (1961-2), commissioned for the side wall of the new John Lewis store—now bemused and rather forlorn above the rank commerce of Oxford Street—is a model of her talent for subtle differences in movement and tension in the shape which are then amplified by the movements of passers-by.
It is, perhaps, in this context that contemporary curiosity is most likely to be piqued. Hepworth was interested not just in sculpture but also in installation. Her works are made to be walked around. In her garden, you find your arms involuntarily following the flow of curve or your body adjusting to peer through a hole. As important as the work is how the audience and architectural context animate it. Hepworth worked with opera directors, filmmakers, photographers and composers, eager to see how sound or movement or a different angle would change her work. She even placed some of her sculptures on turntables. Her early emphasis on form was accompanied by a great interest in gesture and rhythm. But if it is for today’s audiences her affinity with performance art that brings her into focus, her work is still perhaps ultimately best understood in relation to those inscrutable stones up on Madron—multivalent but enduringly powerful.
Emma Crichton-Miller is an art critic