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A feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Barbara Hepworth


 Sculpture for a Modern World


Dame Barbara Hepworth
Corinthos 1954-5
Part painted wood (guarea)
object: 1041 x 1067 x 1016 mm, 560 kg (cased work)
Purchased 1962© Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Tate Britain


Linbury Galleries

24 June – 25 October 2015



Cornish sea, sky, light and land and their profound natural harmony is just one of the simplistic, yet seismic, reoccurring elements in the increasingly abstract sculptural trajectory of Barbara Hepworth, (1903 – 1975), as demonstrated by the incredibly far ranging works on show at Tate Britain. Most were hewn by hand, from a seemingly infinite variety of stones and woods considering their aspects in the making, resulting in a sublime marriage of matter and form. As surely as sea still laps the shore in her beloved St Ives, so Hepworth fans and sculptural art enthusiasts will be drawn to the Linbury Galleries to celebrate her prolifically inspired artistic outpourings for their own personal elevation.

Hepworth’s art has that rare capacity to engage with viewers in a very personal way, despite any given work’s ability to appeal to a broader field of awareness and appreciation. Following along the path of Hepworth’s artistic trajectory, appreciators of her work will delight in seeing rare early works such as ‘Doves’ (group) 1927 amid those of contemporaries and artists of note, among them, fellow student and lifelong friend, Henry Moore, who, along with Hepworth helped elevate direct carving. This opening section offers examples of direct carving, in the footsteps of Jacob Epstein, as the order of the day for then modern sculptural students, along with clues of what was to follow for Hepworth, and plenty of proof that she was already a fine figurative sculptor. Direct carving, formerly thought a lowly pastime, practiced solely by craftsmen as opposed to artists, was artistically furthered by Hepworth and Moore who continued to practice it throughout their lifetimes.

 It’s inspiring in a way largely unknown to the history of women in art to see Hepworth lovingly, carving and chiselling her wood and stone pieces at the height of her powers, as visitors to this exhibition are able to do via the short but excellently filmed documentary ‘Figures in a Landscape’ (1953). The film shows Hepworth, carving, shaping, refining, seemingly unaware of the camera as she works in the open air of her St. Ives garden studio. In its’ course, we are also able to admire her works placed in their natural environment, the rugged, seaside landscape surrounding it, not in the manner of Moore’s on the rolling hills of Yorkshire, but as though the works themselves have been shaped by the wind and waves. Assimilating Hepworth’s levels of development along her road to abstraction, as you make your way along her artistic timeline, is, ultimately, akin to discovering some of the seaside’s element hewn riches, surreptitiously drawn up from the its’ depths and strewn along St Ives’ shores, such is the breath of the place she so lived, worked in and loved (1939 – 75) interwoven into her work. ‘The last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth,’ she wrote, in 1971. ‘I have found a greater freedom for myself.’ This exhibition seeks to emphasise Hepworth’s growing importance to International Modernist Art and while that aim serves to highlight her versatility and widening acceptance, it is the effect of the landscape she lived and worked on her work that lingers.

Though, inclusive of earlier experiments with animal and human forms, initially, inspired by Mexican and Egyptian carvings, their stateliness applied to less regal subjects, through abstractly rendered torsos, seated and standing figures and family groupings, of which one notes the uniqueness of some mother and child pairings, as two separate figures, there are many hand hewn, artistic treasures to delight.  ‘Mother and Child’ 1933 carved from white alabaster is one example, showing closely positioned, individual figures, mother, with a curve indicating the child originated from her. Some years ago, a stop in St. Ives Parish Church, adjacent to Hepworth’s former home and studio yielded a, for me, very moving encounter with another, more pensive, seminal Hepworth mother and child carving, ‘Madonna and Child’ Bianco del Mare, carved and donated to the church in 1954, in memory of her fallen son, Paul, an RAF pilot who, with his co-pilot, perished in a crash in the line of duty in February 1953. This chance encounter then inspired me to reconsider Hepworth’s wider body of work in addition to her iconic abstract sculptures.

Arguably, paramount among the greatest pieces in this exhibition are four, of the six originally carved,  large ‘Single form’ sculptures hewn from great logs of the guarea tree of Nigeria, a type of mahogany, majestic material for what are widely seen as some of Hepworth’s most ambitious abstract pieces. Standing out among them is ‘Corinthos’ 1954-5, named, as the others in the series, for places in Greece, which Hepworth visited once again in 1954. Not only is the grain of the wood highlighted by the exterior shape of the piece, their natural spirals encircling it’s curves, within, in its’ inner, white centre it appears as though whitecaps are swelling in a miniature sea all their own, a mesmerising affect.


Barbara Hepworth
detail from Corinthos 1954–5 
Part-painted wood (guarea)
10.4 x 10.7 x 10.2 cm

Tate Collection 
© Alan Bowness, Hepworth Estate


Immersed in their creation, Hepworth saw in them a way to work her way through the intense grief she felt in the aftermath of the sudden death of her first born son. As an artist, Hepworth was ever respectful to her chosen material, always honouring its’ inherent nature: ‘One must be entirely sensitive to the structure of the material that one is handling. One must yield to it in tiny details of execution, perhaps the handling of the surface or grain, and one must master it as a whole.’ This attuned sensitivity greatly enhances the depth and intensity of feeling in her work.

When watching a true artist at work, as visitors can here, via the aforementioned documentary, one is aware of a third, indefinable element, in that Hepworth almost appears to be something of a channel for the stimulating art being created by her hands, hands which, for the most part, had little inclination to do anything else. Works which seem as though they’ve been hewn by aspects of her elemental environment, ever nodding at the ancient Celtic past around her, now infuse Britain with an internationally appreciated, mythological mystique uniquely their own. ‘I felt the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space; quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism,’ Hepworth noted as her work increasingly broke from the figurative comingling of ancient and classical she began with. Completing nearly 600 sculptures during her lifetime, of which many are remarkable for their deceptively simple appearance, endowed with mysterious inner life, as much as she was known for her ‘pierced’ work, Hepworth also rendered carved, painted interiors in many of her pieces, sometimes with taut strings, in tribute to ancient Greece and friend and obvious early and, abiding influence, Naum Gabo.

Understandably, comparisons between the hand-carved sculptures of earlier years and the large bronzes sometimes created to fulfil commissions for public artworks are often made, with the former outweighing the latter in popularity. However, large, bronze commissions still demanded that Hepworth hand carve plaster prototypes to be later cast in bronze and some of the originals of these are on show in the Wakefield Hepworth Museum, opened in 2011. A visit to Wakefield could easily be complemented by a trip to Yorkshire Sculpture Park where Hepworth sculptures are on show in rambling grounds among many other artists, including that of lifelong friend Henry Moore.

Though Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World is a fulfilling exhibition in terms of content, its sculptures would have been displayed to greater advantage in natural light, as they were created and Hepworth herself would have wanted. The importance of this exhibition is only increased by the thought that the last London retrospective took place in 1968 when Hepworth was still around to actively participate in it. Having seen and written about her work in her studio and garden in St. Ives, also under Tate’s wing, I can only reconfirm that outdoors, surrounded by flora and fauna is the most naturalistic, life imbuing environment in which to view her work.

As if to add a touch of irony to the end of this exhibition, its’ final piece, the title of which, I believe is ‘Torso (Ulysses)’ 1958, (not mentioned in press pack), is a bronze rendering of what appears to be an enlarged version of a fossilised bone, a possible nod to the difficulties Hepworth experienced in the final ten years of her life.  During that time, she was increasingly forced to rely on a wheelchair, as a thigh bone, accidentally broken as she alighted from a helicopter trip to the Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall, never properly mended. However, the fact that she created more sculptures in the final decade of her life than the three before it put together indicated that though down, she was certainly, not out. This exhibition had its way with me, in that I left with a greater appreciation than ever before for the immensely evocative, highly imaginative, totally unique art of Barbara Hepworth.


Barbara Hepworth in the Palais studio at work on the wood carving Hollow Form with White Interior 1963
Photograph: Val Wilmer
© Bowness 



Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World
Tate Britain
London SW1P 4RG

Call +44 (0)20 7887 8888
Until Oct 25, 2015
Open daily, 10am-6pm. Admission £18, concessions available

Clip from ‘Figures in a Landscape’ 1953
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