This year London houses a major retrospective of the work of Barbara Hepworth alongside her friend and contemporary Henry Moore at Tate Britain. The exhibition, entitled Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World promises to emphasise Hepworth’s status as a leading figure in the art world of the 1930s 40s and 50s and readdress the manner in which her work has often been overlooked with regard to her male contemporaries. A pioneer of modernism, whose sculptures can be found around the world, be it in Venice, New York or the humble coastal town of St. Ives, she produced over 600 works from 1925 until her death in 1975’; it’s about time London learned more about her.

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903 Hepworth grew up removed from the chaotic shapes of the developing city of London, and this removal remains one of the most striking aspects of her art. “All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures,” she wrote in her autobiography. “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, through mind and hand and eye”.

Hepworth in the Mall Studio, London, 1933 Photograph by Paul Laib The Barbara Hepworth Photograph Collection © The de Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives, Witt Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Hepworth in the Mall Studio, London, 1933. Photograph by Paul Laib. 
© The de Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives, Witt Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London

The alchemy of art has long remained one of life’s greatest mysteries, but perhaps especially in regard to sculpture. Bertrand Russell in his A History of Western Philosophy describes sculpture as being “sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection” and it’s easy to recognize such sublime purity when encountering the minimalism and brutality of Hepworth’s shapes that seem just as rugged and mysterious as those born out of nature. As in Michelangelo’s vision the process of sculpture is one of release: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”. There is a cathartic liberation to be found in the entire process of Hepworth’s work, of slicing and cutting at a material, not to destroy it or pummel it into willful submission, but to allow it to speak more clearly. She was able to bring forth a torrent of emotion from the most quiet and sedate of materials; she brought life to stone.

Squares with Two Circles 1963 Tate © Bowness
Squares with Two Circles 1963 Tate © Bowness

Yet for all her ability to conjure with such materials it was the human figure that remained “first and last” in the natural world for Hepworth. “In the country [it] becomes a free and moving part of a greater whole”. When we walk in the world we connect to our surroundings, on a basic level our feet tread the paths that many have taken before, looking from afar we become a moving and present part of the earth we live on, we acknowledge our place in it, even through the notionally insignificant movement of simply getting a breath of fresh air. “This relationship between figure and landscape is vitally important to me” she declared “I cannot feel it in a city”. It’s a truism that despite the vast concentration of human bodies in the meccas of London and New York and similarly vast cityscapes the number of people actually dehumanizes those bodies around us. Shuffling onto the tube at rush hour it’s often hard to find one’s humanity when you have your nose pressed into a stranger’s chest. It’s in moments such as these that the proximity of people and landscape, the swift deviation from natural landscape, of harsh angular lines and shiny metal surfaces emerge. We retain our humanity (just) but we lose something of the grandeur of nature, we replace it instead with grandeur of our own making.

The city machine is a famous trope in literature and art, the great guzzling giant that has been tormenting the human race since the concept of ‘the city’ began with all the violent smog and dirt it brought with it. Like Henry James upon returning to New York in 1904 to discover the newly erected sky scrapers in his The American Scene (1907) we can feel the buildings are only “giants of the mere market”. The mountains of modernity, the mountains we build to replace the rolling hills are those fuelled by a futile materialism. Personally I prefer the Italian for such buildings: grattacielo, which translates literally as ‘sky grabber’, a name much more fitting to the desperate reach that such buildings suggest; rather than scraping the sky we grab at it, with little success. By the 1930s these developments had spread, and Hepworth moved to Cornwall with her then husband, the painter Ben Nicholson. Retreating to the coast in 1939 Hepworth found the power she had been unable to find in the developing metropolitan world, and with this rekindled connection to landscape produced some of the finest sculptures of her career.

The move clearly affected Hepworth’s practice. Works produced were named Sea Forms, Rock Formation, Sea Formation, Figures in a Landscape, all centred around this new environment in which Hepworth would remain for the rest of her life. One work in particular Pelagos (‘sea’ in Greek) has been explicitly identified as being inspired by a particular view of the bay at St Ives. The view captures the point at which two arms of land enfold the sea from both sides, an embrace that remains at once still and tormented. From this view Hepworth creates a hollowed out spiral formation, similar to a shell, a wave or “a rolling hill”. Taunt strings pulled across the carcass of wood become expressive of “the tension” Hepworth felt between these natural elements “the sea, the wind or the hills”.

This intermingling of art and life was central to Hepworth. Just as she lived with nature so she lived with her sculptures: “It’s lovely to live with a sculpture, because it changes in every possible light; all through the day, moonlight, artificial light – any light – it’s always changing”. Art is greatest when it features as a natural part of our everyday lives. The artistry of life itself, of falling leaves, of a sun setting, of waves crashing, of the light changing is essential to the way we live whether we recognize it or not. When Hepworth talked about her work she was adamant that it retain this fundamental connection to its origins:

I always envisage ‘perfect settings’ for sculpture and they are, of course, mostly envisaged outside and related to the landscape.

Whenever I drive through the countryside and up the hills, I imagine forms placed in situations of natural beauty and I wish more could be done about the permanent siting of sculptures in strange and lonely places.

I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe. Wood sculptures, of course, are not happy out of doors; but they have other properties more tactile and intimate which relate to an indoor life.

One of Hepworth’s greatest strengths as an artist was her recognition of her state as a product of her surroundings, as she put it: “I the sculptor am the landscape”. The crisscrossed Yorkshire moors of her childhood are not only the building blocks of her eye for sculpture but also the foundations of the way she perceived life and art. The world itself is artistry, nature, God, whatever you call it; the force of life is the greatest artist the world has known and one that great artists such as Hepworth pay homage to in every piece they create. For Hepworth more evidently than most the regular forms of nature, of the world around her, were the most powerful she could find.

In his 1954 The Art of Sculpture Sir Herbert Edward Read put a particular emphasis on this palpability of sculpture. Here was art that one could touch, one could reach out and connect to on a fundamental level. This actuality that sculpture presented and the possibilities its solidity posed were suddenly viewed as proof of a certain authenticity. Sculpture was a cure for alienation; it was the art that asked its viewers to engage. Unlike traditional mediums of pen, ink and paint, a sculpture stood in the real world, not confined to the walls of a gallery. It was able to invade the social consciousness in the same way it was able to invade the world around it.

This emphasis on the space of sculpture abounds in Hepworth’s work. In one letter to her friend, the critic Herbert Read, Hepworth even talks about the physical journey of the viewer and the importance of this interaction of man and environment: “Imagine the critic having to climb a hill, or walk a mile through a forest…to see a sculpture”. Environment, setting, location, the landscape of a sculpture – these were not merely additional wonders to Hepworth but part of a piece’s construction. Setting was as resolutely important as the materials used and the shapes created. Sculpture not simply a matter of viewing, but of experience on every level; an entire process of encounter. Watching old archival footage of Hepworth at work you can see the care that’s taken in her constructions, the meticulous mapping out, each move planned out to perfection as she builds her own architectural landscape.

Walking into Hepworth’s garden in St. Ives I feel like a pilgrim paying homage. The peace of the space is unexplainable but intensely powerful. Every contour of each carefully crafted piece is perfectly aligned with those of the natural world, of the human form, the hill, the ocean, yet nothing is set in stone (ho ho). Nothing aligns exactly, everything is left subtly understated, lovingly fluid, a point of ambiguity in which the viewer brings to the sculpture all they desire. The plants are left to grow, to weave up and into the stone, curving round the bases, framing splits of view that come between far-off leaves.

Sculpture itself here reaches its pinnacle as a form of landscape in one piece entitled River Form: metal, and water come together to form a land set apart from the world around it, an invisible sphere that shelters a pool of water from reflection. Hepworth takes Bronze, a metal used for centuries to make coins and instead returns it to a state of earthy silence, reminiscent of the stone it comes from. This cradling leads to a strange vacuum of space, a sanctity of silence in which water rests in isolation from the earth, from the sea, from the sky. Instead it is subject only to the bronze that surrounds it, playing off the material as it breathes slowly. For that is something this particular sculpture teaches you; water breathes, despite its isolation. Its rigid cutting away from any other environment forces Hepworth to create an alternative habitat and within this habitat despite its stationary position the water continues to ripple, its reflection on the bronze above it shimmering, not with the reflection of sea or sky, but a strange translucent reflection interior to itself.

It’s wonderful that finally Hepworth’s work will be brought back into the public eye by appearing in London. But it will be intriguing to see how exactly the curators of such an exhibition manage to maintain the importance of setting to Hepworth’s works. Looking out into the garden, the sun setting, the light catches the side of the bronze and stone in St. Ives turning the gray a glassy shade of blue in the twilight. Against the evergreen of the garden it is as if the sea is slowly erupting from the sculptures. Watching the light fade and the stone shed the remnants of the day shade by shade, the bronze burning in the evening light, I wonder how the clammy interiors of the museum walls will care for these creatures of stone. I wonder how the eerie life, the revelations of these silent reflections of Hepworth’s touch, will fare if uprooted.

By Thea Hawlin

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