Barbara Hepworth: sculpture for a modern world
Tate Britain, 2015
This must be one of the most beautiful shows in London this summer. For tactile seduction, balance of natural and man-made form, interplay of exterior and interior, and sheer creative joy and loving craftsmanship, there is little to match Hepworth at the top of her game. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the work of her near-contemporary, Sonia Delaunay, on show at Tate Modern.
Born in 1903, Hepworth went to Leeds School of Art in 1920 where she studied alongside Henry Moore. They both then went to the Royal College of Art in London from 1921 to 1924. They learned in an atmosphere of avant-garde art shaped by Cubism, by recent experiments in non-representational art, and by a fascination with non-European sculpture.
Under the influence of Jacob Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska, Hepworth’s work in the later 1920s was figurative but chiefly interested in the relationship of simplified forms. Nevertheless, it seems free of the anxieties that often characterise the two older artists. In representations of both animals and human figures there is a genuine human warmth permeating her work.
In the art world of the 1930s, in both London and Paris, there was a convergence between Constructivism and Surrealism, resulting in a more programmatic insistence on non-representationalism. The Seven and Five Society, in which Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson were key players, eventually expelled artists who were still working in a figurative manner, and the group’s exhibition in 1935 was the first in the UK to be entirely non-representational.
Hepworth did not espouse the clean geometrical forms of Constructivism that we see, for instance, in Sonia Delaunay. But she kept the Surrealist influence at arm’s length also. Whereas some British Surrealists infused their work with deliberate strangeness or overt Freudian references, Hepworth seems infused by a more romantic, pantheistic spirit.
Looking at her work, we have a strong sense of her presence shaping the forms of nature, and drawing us inside them, as if pointing us to a significance that lies within nature and in the human shaping of it.
One sees this in the stunning works of the 1940s, such as Pelagos and Curved stone. On the exterior she achieves an almost perfectly smooth but nuanced surface, bringing out the natural qualities of stone and wood. Without imposing an entirely rationalistic form upon them, she sufficiently shapes them to make clear they have been formed by human hand. But the works draw the viewer in, through hollowing out the inside, and articulating the interior space with coloured strings, or plainly painted surfaces.
The group of more monumental works from 1954-5, made from the African hardwood guarea, are similar: the proportion of interior space to solid mass is much less, but they still draw the eye towards the interior of the block.
These are beautiful objects, but fine art is about much more than beauty. It is an expression, implicit or explicit, of deeper commitments about what we value or worship; where we look for meaning; what we believe is real.
In one room of the exhibition you can sit and watch the short film Figures in a landscape, made by Dudley Shaw Ashton in 1953. The film dwells lovingly on the pounding waves beating on the Cornish coastline, where Hepworth and Nicholson had lived and worked since 1939. The poetic voiceover draws out the romantic parallel between Hepworth’s work and forces and forms of nature.
But there seems be a platonist element in play also. Both Hepworth and Nicholson were interested in Christian Science, with its conviction that sickness is an illusion that can be dealt with only by prayer, and hence a tendency to set the spiritual over against the material. Mondrian, a friend of Hepworth and Nicholson, and briefly their neighbour as he fled from Europe in 1938, had a similar sense of the lesser nature of everyday reality, and a desire to subdue the distressing multiplicity of details of material reality into a simplified spiritual reality.
It is not hard to think that Hepworth is working in a similar direction – taking natural forms and slowly, removing their natural blemishes and individual details in order to move them towards a platonic ideality. There is something here of 1930s idealism – not just in its totalitarian politics but in its urban design. The human experience of living in a simplified ideal state proved less than ideal. But like the modernist architects of the 1930s. Hepworth certainly makes that ideal look very attractive.
Image: Dame Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos 1946 (London: Tate Britain). Part painted elm wood and strings; 430 x 460 x 385 mm, 15.2 kg. Presented by the artist 1964 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate
[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, September/October 2015]