It is refreshing to visit an exhibition when you don’t know much about the artist, and however famous Barbara Hepworth was – I had to admit general ignorance on any specifics of her work. What I found however was a fascinating insight into sculpture and the artist’s path to abstraction.
Hepworth was celebrated for her ability to synthesise organic form, light and colour from the landscape to produce compositions of extraordinary elegance and clarity. Her early works were more figurative, explicitly exploring the human form, and some of her works (particularly later in her career) relate to ancient stones and shapes within the landscape. This exploration of our relationship to the natural world, drove her to examine ways to open up sculptural form in order to involve the viewer. She wanted her work not only to be looked at by to be experienced.
“I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and the human spirit inhabiting the landscape, for me, the whole art sculpture is a fusion of these two element – the balance of sensation and the evocation of man in his universe.”
Studio International 171’ – June 1966, p. 280.
Hepworth was interested in expressing the physical experience of being in the landscape – for example, the push and pull of the wind, the changing shapes and contours as you walk or the varieties of textures and patterning on rocks and vegetation. She preferred her work to be shown outdoors and said that sculptures need natural light and air “‘to breathe and grow”. Hepworth said there is an inside and an outside to every form. Many of her sculptures explore this tension, carving through the material or hollowing out the forms to explore the inside and outside of the form.
“Piercing through forms became dominant. Could I climb through and in what direction? Could I rest, lie or stand within the forms? Could I, at one and the same time, be the outside as well as the form within…?”
Barbara Hepworth, A Pictorial autobiography, New York, Praeger Publishers, 1970, p. 283.
And a longer fascinating extract from Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings, London, 1952
“This thought has recurred again and again ever since – and has developed my greatest interests; the reason why people both move differently and stand differently in direct response to changed surroundings; the unconscious grouping of people when they are working together, producing a spatial movement which approximates to the structure of spirals in shells or rhythms in crystal structure; the meaning of the spaces between forms, or the shape of the displacement of forms in space, which in themselves have a most precise significance. All these responses spring from a factual and tactile approach to the object – whether it be the feeling of landscape which one feels beneath one’s feet or the sensitivity of the hand in carving, or in surgery, or music, and they have an organic and perceptual purpose.”