A Sussex art show throws new light on the influences which shaped the life and art of sculptor Barbara Hepworth, highlighting her wide-ranging interests in dance, music, politics, science and latterly, the space race.
Although much of the artist’s work is abstract, “Hepworth associated the shapes of her sculptures with specific physical and emotional experiences, such as a figure standing at the top of a hill, or a mother holding a child”, explains curator Eleanor Clayton, from the Hepworth Wakefield.
There was always an emotional stimulus and connection behind the abstraction. These forms had a special meaning for Hepworth and are the focus of this beautifully curated retrospective at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne. I particularly liked the mix of sculptures displayed alongside the less familiar drawings, paintings and prints, showing how Hepworth experimented with forms and materials throughout her life.
‘The hills were sculptures’
Born in Wakefield in 1903, Hepworth was immersed in the West Yorkshire landscape from a young age: “The hills were sculptures.” At the Royal College of Art, her early drawings already demonstrate a sense of volume. Aged 21, while studying in Tuscany, she trained with a marble craftsman alongside artist John Skeaping, who became her first husband.
In 1931 she met, and later married, the artist Ben Nicholson. Around that time her work began to become more abstract and she experimented with making holes in her sculptures, as in Pierced Hemisphere (1937), carved in Italian marble.
‘I could only draw at night’
Hepworth and Nicholson moved from London to Cornwall during the Second World War. Materials were scarce, so she focused on drawings in pencil and gouache, such as Drawing for Sculpture (1941). She wrote vividly about that time: “I could only draw at night and make a few plaster maquettes. The day was filled with running a nursery school, double-cropping a tiny garden for food, and trying to feed and protect the children.” The plaster Oval Sculpture no.2 (1943; cast 1958) was a direct response to these conditions.
‘Deep prejudice towards women in art’
In 1944, one of her daughters developed a rare bone condition and spent time in hospital. This led to the creation of a striking set of hospital drawings. Concentration of Hands (1948) shows the work of surgeons during an operation, and The Hands (1948) includes the theatre sister’s “quiet stance and very tender hands”. The five drawings have a strong sculptural and almost religious quality about them.
In 1950, Hepworth represented Britain in the Venice Biennale, having previously felt she was overlooked by the selection committee for: “1) being a woman, 2) being abstract, 3) being young and 4) being a wife and mother.” She often spoke about the “deep prejudice towards women in art”.
Experiments in music, dance and colour
In the early 1950s, Hepworth was invited to design the set and costumes for a number of innovative theatre performances, including the Greek play Electra and Michael Tippet’s Midsummer Marriage. This enabled her to experiment with different media and explore her interest in music and dance. I was previously unaware of this aspect of Hepworth’s work.
For Electra, Hepworth constructed the god Apollo (1951) from painted steel. The set and costume designs for Ritual Dances are brightly coloured – viridian green, ultramarine and Venetian red – and show awareness of the human form in movement.
The influence of the Cornish seascapes and countryside are evident in much of Hepworth’s work. I loved some of Hepworth’s prints and paintings inspired by the landscape, such as Porthmeor (1969), depicting the sweeping bay in St Ives where Hepworth had a studio. She lived there until her death in 1975.
Creating fluidity and movement in metal
At the heart of the exhibition are three metal sculptures which exemplify fluidity and movement – my favourite pieces. Forms in Movement, Galliard (1956) is made of copper sheet; the link with Galliard, a 16th century dance, highlights the sense of movement. Sea Form, Porthmeor (1958) is a bronze sculpture which conveys the movement of waves in its spiral form.
In the centre, Curved Form, Trevalgan (1956) is a beautiful bronze sculpture with arms which curve and reach upwards. It was inspired by spiritual experiences of being surrounded by landscape, where the land meets the sea near St Ives, and “the forms seem to enfold the watcher and lift him towards the sky”.
Spirituality: ‘the Divine Mind in perpetual motion’
Hepworth believed in the power of art to bring about social change and later became a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). She also became increasingly involved with the Christian Science movement, and she saw a link between her beliefs and scientific advances, particularly space travel.
Sun and Moon (1969) is a striking black, white and red lithograph. The repeated use of circles in the painting Genesis III (1966) links to Hepworth’s belief in “the Divine Mind in perpetual motion. Its symbol is the sphere”. Although I struggled with some of the concepts and beliefs expressed, the power of these paintings and related sculptures is clear.
At a time when British sculpture and modern art were dominated by men, Barbara Hepworth forged an important career which spanned over 50 years. The Towner exhibition gives the viewer a range of new insights into this influential artist’s life and work.
Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life is at the Towner Eastbourne until 3 September 2023. All images are reproduced with kind permission of the Towner Gallery and quotes are from Eleanor Clayton’s exhibition guide.
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