Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life
By Eleanor Clayton
Thames & Hudson/288 pages/$39.95
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Barbara Hepworth was born on January 10, 1903. Britain's Edwardian Age, with its great affluence, class divisions and growing concern about the threat of war in Europe, was in full flower. It was also the year when the Wright Brothers took to the air in their flying machine. It was a momentous year to be born.
Hepworth, one of the greatest sculptors of the modern age, is currently being celebrated by a major exhibition in her home town, Wakefield, Yorkshire, and in a splendid biography by Eleanor Clayton.
Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life, exhibition and book, could not be better timed. Hepworth's career calls for a reappraisal. She was such an accomplished artist and - during the last years of her life - a very successful one that she became something of an "establishment" figure. Respectfully placed in a niche of honor, Hepworth has in recent years been taken for granted, a victim of her own achievements.
The story of Hepworth's life and art deserves better and Clayton's biography restores her as a dynamic presence in modern art. I am sure the same can be said for the Hepworth Wakefield exhibition, judging by the photos I have seen of this impressive survey of Hepworth's oeuvre.
As briefly stated in Clayton's introduction, Hepworth delineated three basic, primal "forms" with which she created her sculptures.
Firstly, Hepworth utilized the single vertical form representing "the human figure standing in landscape." Second, she positioned two forms next to each other which evoke "the tender relationship of one entity to another." Last in her repertoire was the "closed form" which could be oval, spherical or "pierced"- with at least part of the center area being carved to provide empty space. The closed form, for Hepworth, represented "the feeling or the embrace of living things."
Thus defined, Hepworth's procedures are reduced to essential precepts. But that does not mean that there was anything simplistic about her art. These "forms" served as the structural elements for configurations of astonishing variety and integration.
The intelligence and versatility which Hepworth devoted to her sculptures is evident in Three Forms (1935), where even the shadows cast by the egg-like objects are used to create a powerful sense of presence, and in her starkly-moving model for a monument to the anti-Fascist forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
As the Hepworths, father and daughter, traveled along in these rural "rides," the young Barbara caught sight of rocky outcrops, some of monumental size. Such "crags" thrusting from the rolling surface of the Yorkshire moors had inspired the epic novels of the Brontë sisters, only a few decades earlier.
Hepworth's artistic talent and her parents' enlightened attitude to female education enabled her to kindle the creative spark from these early journeys. Clayton relates how the precocious Hepworth benefited from a steady infusion of guidance, encouragement and support as she progressed through the levels of British art education. Hepworth's dedication to her craft was duly rewarded in 1921 when she was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art.
As this beautifully-illustrated biography reveals, Hepworth was accomplished in drawing and watercolor by her late teens. However, she chose sculpture as her primary artistic medium. Working in stone and wood, (often rare hardwoods which are a challenge to even veteran sculptors), Hepworth quickly demonstrated a level of mastery rivaling that of her fellow Yorkshireman (and close friend), Henry Moore.
From very early in her career, Hepworth was drawn to avant garde circles in Britain, notably the Unit One group, founded in 1933. The name was unintentionally ironic, as only one exhibition was mounted by the short-lived band of modernists.
To be fair to the young artists involved, their joint exhibit did travel around Britain, after showing in London. Yet, it was the companion book to the exhibition which insured that Unit One would be heard and remembered. Each of the contributing painters and sculptors was responsible for an artist's statement. Hepworth rose to the challenge. Her essay revealed impressive writing ability which brilliantly explained her work ethic, practical and visionary in equal measure:
Carving is interrelated masses conveying an emotion; a perfect relationship between the mind and the colour, light and weight which is the stone, made by the hand which feels. It must be so essentially sculpture that it can exist in no other way, something completely the right size but which has growth, something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality.
By the time that Hepworth submitted her Unit One essay, she had moved from evoking the human figure in almost spiritual manifestations to experiments in Abstraction. These might be sculpted "biomorphic" forms or carved oval 'hemispheres" pierced with glaring, eye-like holes with which Hepworth affirmed that vision "is the perception of the mind."
If body and soul kept emerging from Hepworth's sculptures, regardless of their forms and shapes, so too did the natural world assert itself in her work. The landscape and the sea made their presence felt, especially after Hepworth relocated to St. Ives in Cornwall with her children to escape the bombing of London during World War II.
As noted, Hepworth was skillful in articulating her views on art. It might, therefore, be expected that she would also write essays rebelling against the male "patriarchy" of art officialdom and press reviewers. She certainly resented the patronizing comments about the "little woman who sculpts" which appeared in art reviews, especially in the early, prewar years. Yet, Hepworth responded with quite determination by producing an astonishing body of work, rather than polemical tracts.
In this outstanding biography, Eleanor Clayton balences her commentary on Hepworth's art with telling insight into her private life. Hepworth was married twice, to artists John Skeaping and Ben Nicolson. Both marriages ended in divorce but she remained on good terms with both Skeaping and Nicolson. And through years of war and rationing, she managed to raise four children, a son by Skeaping and a set of triplets by Nicolson.
One of the triplets, Sarah, was frequently ill during her childhood, with Hepworth spending much time in doctor's offices and hospitals. By 1947, her own health began to break down under the relentless strain and the onset of rhematism, an "occupational" bane of sculptors. In a remarkable "gift" of adversity, Hepworth was offered the opportunity to observe an operation by her daughter's surgeon.
The result was a series of stunning sketches and paintings of medical procedures, executed in 1947-1948. Apart from the fact that Hepworth was able to continue working while recuperating from her own ailments, she was able to represent the ideals of her primal, sculptural forms in linear fashion.
Whether creating an Abstract sculpture or recording the intense focus of a surgeon's eyes, Hepworth embraced both carefully-defined form and a sense of the infinite potential of human beings. Clayton certainly does justice to Hepworth's artistic ability and the spiritual, humane values which underpinned Hepworth's life and work.
That being said, there is a difficulty in making a detailed appraisal of Hepworth's actual works of art, especially for American art lovers. The overwhelming majority of Hepworth's creative output is housed in British museums, chiefly Hepworth Wakefield and her studio at St. Ives, now part of the Tate Museum network. Also, international exhibitions of sculpture are much more difficult to mount than those devoted to paintings and works on paper.
Some of the major U.S. museums do have works by Hepworth in their collections, though rarely displaying more than one or two at the same time. As I read Clayton's superb biography, I was fortunate in being able to visit the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, which is affiliated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Currently on view at the Rodin is Hepworth's 1956 bronze entitled Involute.
Hepworth, of course, need studio assistants to created such works. but once again, she made a virtue of necessity. This enabled her to "go big" with casts of her work, notably the memorial to Dag Hammerskjold, the Secretary General of the United Nations who was killed in a plane crash while trying to restore peace during the Congo civil strife in 1962.
Hammerskjold had been close friend of Hepworth's and his death was a shocking blow. This was in no small part because it compounded the terrible effect of the 1953 death of Hepworth's son, Paul Skeaping, killed in an air accident while serving in the Royal Air Force. And little could she know that her life would end in a tragic accident, a studio fire in 1975.
Hepworth's monumental tribute to Hammerskjold has been on display in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York since its unveiling in 1964. Seeing Hepworth "dwarfed" next to the plaster prototype for the bronze cast of Single Form (Memorial) is unsettling. She herself was dubious about the size, especially as Hammerskjold, a deeply sensitive man had rejected "all that might veer towards the grandiose and pompous."
Never-the-less, Single Form (Memorial) is a moving and appropriate work of art. You have to arch you back a bit to focus on the entire expanse of the bronze surface. The irregular, "biomorphic" form with its circular opening, its eye, gives it a human feeling, with a touch of god's grandeur.
Single Form (Memorial) drew inspiration from each of the primal forms which Hepworth used throughout her long, productive career. The first, "the human figure standing in landscape" and the third, the "closed form" pierced by an opening in the surface, are obvious.
The second form is particularly important, though it may take sometime to grasp. There are in fact two forms here, two beings, two "entities" in a tender relationship. Who are they? It is the viewer beholding the mighty work and the spirit of the great artist who created it, resonating from within.
The same sense of communion is very much a part of the reading experience of Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life. Eleanor Clayton has summoned Hepworth back to life - and her presence lingers like the sensation of "the embrace of living things."
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.
Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life is published to accompany a major exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield from May 21, 2021 through February 27, 2022.
Book cover image Courtesy of Thames & Hudson
Introductory Image: Barbara Hepworth with The Cosdon Head, 1949 The Hepworth Photograph Collection Courtesy Bowness Photograph: Hans Wild
Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life at The Hepworth Wakefield, 2021. Photograph by Lewis Ronald Plastiques
Barbara Hepworth (center) studying on a Yorkshire Senior County Art Scholarship, with fellow students at the Royal College of Art, London, c. 1921–23 The Hepworth Photograph Collection Courtesy Bowness
Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture record for Three Forms (1935) Gift to The Hepworth Wakefield from the Hepworth Estate, 2013 Photograph: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness
Barbara Hepworth, Project – Monument to the Spanish War (1938–39) Photograph: Barbara Hepworth © Bowness
Barbara Hepworth, Tibia Graft (1949) Wakefield Permanent Art Collection Purchased by Wakefield Corporation, 1951) © Bowness Photograph: Jerry Hardman-Jones
Anne Lloyd, Photo (20200 Barbara Hepworth's Involute (1956) at the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia.
Barbara Hepworth with the plaster Single Form at the Morris Singer Foundry, May 1963 The Hepworth Photograph Collection Courtesy Bowness Photograph: Morgan Wells