Barbara Hepworth’s epic works changed the face of sculpture

June 12th, 2015

Barbara Hepworth liked to say ‘There is no landscape without the figure.’

She was born in Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1903. What she saw, the earliest imprints on her retina, were dramatic forms; outcrops and crags, peaks and escarpments. Weather and time sculpting the rocks that are the spine of the place. She was born among the monumental.

Hepworth believed that sculpture is first and foremost an outdoor art. For Hepworth, a sculpture is a mediating form that makes a connection between human beings and our inner and outer worlds.

It fascinated her that from earliest times, humans quarried stone, dragged its reluctant mass to some sacred place, carved it, worked it, and raised up those stones to stand as signals of human endeavour. Standing stones are public monuments in the truest sense – a collective enterprise made out of necessity – not the necessity of survival – a daily preoccupation for our ancestors, but the necessity of the soul.

Hepworth never accepted that art of any kind was a diversion or a luxury – how could it be when it springs so early from a uniquely human wish to make a pause in the relentless struggle for survival? A place of commemoration and contemplation.

Her own public commissions have a strong sense of this shared enterprise – this public good.

When, in 1961, she was commissioned to create a piece to stand outside the United Nations Building in New York City, she wanted something that people would actually look at, rather than walk past, and she wanted a piece where the meaning was inherent, rather than representational (statues of great men) or symbolic (cenotaphs).

Barbara Hepworth with the plaster of Single Form 1961-4 at the Morris Singer foundry, London, May 1963 (© Bowness)

She created a curved, shield-like shape with her signature piercing. (SINGLE FORM) Her sculpture has the look of a warrior’s defence – an ancient piece of armour, battle-broken but intact. The hole is a place of entry but not a place of defeat. It is a way of seeing to the other side, recognising that there is another side – appropriate to the political remit of the United Nations, where countries come together to do more than defend their own interests.

Hepworth was political. She lived through the two worst wars in the history of the world – first as a child and then as an adult. Her adult life as an artist ran in parallel with the Spanish Civil War, the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Her hope, like that of many artists, was that collective solutions would resolve national aggression.

Hepworth didn’t believe that art was a substitute for politics or that art could stop wars. She did believe that artists should be publically engaged – she was a member of CND and the Labour Party – and she believed that art has a strong communal message.

Hepworth recognised the paradox of art that speaks to so many – and does so across time – and yet is experienced by the individual as something like a message in a bottle, found and understood by one person alone. Hepworth’s big outdoor sculptures combine the totemic – the collective life of the tribe – and the talismanic. This is for you; for your protection, contemplation, and renewal. The inner and the outer were parts of the whole that Hepworth was always trying to bring together in her work.

While Yorkshire gave Barbara Hepworth her feel for slabs of stone, it was her scholarship to Italy in the 1920’s that overwhelmed her with slabs of light. In Rome and Florence she understood, dizzily, dramatically, that light changes everything. Her indoor pieces began to use both colour and reflection of surface to intensify the sense of light.

INFANT, (1929) modelled from Hepworth’s first born new born son, Paul, mirror- polishes the dark brown blackness of the Burmese timber she carved, so that the light she experiences emanating from inside the child is visible on his skin of wood.

This shining child, free of associations of black or white, posed upright but with the horizontality of a sleeping baby, arms above his head, offers what Hepworth called ‘the emotion of a thing’. She felt that emotion happened more powerfully when the object was not too faithfully rendered. Abstraction, for her, avoided what she called ‘particularisation’. We know what she means. Who cares about snapshots of people we don’t know? The minutiae of lives dear to others are indifferent to us. Faithful representation does not, by itself, bring us up close, or cause us to feel anything. Think of the real life atrocities we see on the daily news – and forget about.

Hepworth understood the Modernist move away from representation to abstraction as a move towards greater feeling and greater truth. As a woman, and as a mother, she brought warmth and intimacy to this project. Art is not gender neutral. That fact is a strength.

Hepworth though, like many other women artists, had to cope with the fact of her femaleness automatically interpreted as a weakness.

Just as Virginia Woolf, in the 1920’s and 30’s was trying to find for herself a woman’s sentence, a woman’s language (this has nothing to do with content), so Hepworth was exploring what it meant to carve as a woman. Men did not ask, then – though some of them do now – what does it mean to write as a man, to carve as a man? When the ideology of gender superiority happens to coincide with your gender, there is no need to ask such questions. When it doesn’t, what do you do? Assimilate? (Try and work like a man). Decorate? (Accept your second-rate status). Detonate: (Smash the assumptions and work in your own way). Woolf did that. Hepworth did that. These artists are not women working in a man’s world. These artists are women re-working the world as they see it. And that means method, theory, failure, risk, experiment.

Hepworth enjoyed close friendships with other creative woman. In 1949 she met Priaulx Rainer, a composer and musician, who inspired Hepworth to develop her earlier experiments with sculpture plus string.

Both women loved the poetry of Rilke, in particular the Orpheus sonnets. Hepworth was musical, she played piano well, calling music ‘a vital part of my daily life’, and when she listened to music she saw the composition as visual – something she often tried to explain to her second husband, the artist Ben Nicholson.

Orpheus, who must try to bring back his dead wife Eurydice from the Underworld, seduces Hades with songs. Hepworth tried out different versions of strings in her compositions – the word itself recalling music – until in 1956, the electronics firm Mullard commissioned her, and she produced her own Orpheus cycle: Theme on Electronics (Orpheus).

That is how I first came across Barbara Hepworth. My father worked on the factory floor at Mullard, Blackburn, Lancashire, and so, in spite of the fact that we had no money, we always had a large television set – a cabinet on castors with a curved screen and a back full of cathode tubes.
In the 1960’s, when I was a small child, Dad’s TV came with a catalogue of Mullard-ness. In it was the Barbara Hepworth electronic Orpheus. Mrs Winterson thought it looked no better than the mini-mandolin she used to slice hard- boiled eggs. But art was not her best subject.

The Mullard commission was not art for the workers, Soviet-style; it was for the HQ in London. But Hepworth, as a committed Socialist, had already produced work for the Festival of Britain (1951) and she was working with the Cornish composer Michael Tippet on a festival for her beloved St Ives.
Hepworth had moved to Cornwall from London at the outbreak of war in 1939, with her husband Ben Nicholson, their triplets, and her son Paul. They had no money and few materials, and Hepworth worked as all women must work; juggling children, creativity, and career.

Her powerful sense of Mankind as a family was a direct response to her own family. Life must be lived whole or not at all, she thought. Her spiritual and practical pursuit of wholeness was also the breakthrough – literally – of her first piercing of solid form in 1931. The Hepworth holes are not a derivative of Henry Moore – she always claimed she got there first, anyway. Woman has for so long been described as an absence, a void, a hole – start with Plato and go forward to web porn – that to return this hole to wholeness is a significant act of defiance and definition.

Hepworth wanted to see right through solid form, but what happened was a surprise. By surrounding space with form the invisible becomes visible. Here was a view previously enjoyed only by God: Nothingness.

Sometimes I think that Hepworth’s pierced forms are inversions. That the object, however beautiful, is a means of seeing the empty space within it and around it.

Truth to materials and direct carving were the Modernist tenets that Hepworth made her own. Art was not imposition; it was discovery. Discovery of what the material had to offer the artist, and fidelity to what the artist could make of the material. That empty space became part of the material she worked with is an exuberant sleight of hand.

Hepworth called her left hand her ‘thinking hand’. Sometimes she called it her ‘listening hand’. She felt, not with her fingers, but with her palm.

She loved the way that time weathered and worked the natural landscape. Now, time is weathering and working her sculptures that have become part of our imaginative landscape too.