Photo: Heather Scott [Unsplash]

The case for Barbara Hepworth

It is considered, in my opinion, that Barbara Hepworth is the greatest sculptor England has ever produced. Hepworth exists, however, in that slightly strange position in the art world that may be termed the outskirts of fame. To the general public, Hepworth’s name will register recognition; you may even have a decent idea of the sort of art she made, and when she was active. What seems to be lacking in artists of the stature of Hepworth is a digestible understanding of why their art was significant and deserves recognition. It is to this end that I dedicate this article, with the aim of hoping it will inspire you to check out more of her work – or to those of you already familiar – to see it in a new light.

Hepworth’s sculptures have an indescribable feeling of ‘rightness’ – they feel unpretentious, unaffected, natural and almost calming

The beauty of Hepworth’s art, for me, begins even before the final works are created, with the process becoming deeply embedded in the creation. When writing and speaking on her art, Hepworth references the idea that she is, rather than dominating the material, working with it, co-operating with otherwise inanimate pieces of rock, metal and stone, to reveal natural and harmonious forms. She references how the material she works with “resists and makes demands”, and how the idea of a sculpture must be “in harmony with the qualities of each one carved”. You get the distinct feeling that Hepworth is someone deeply in tune with the natural world. Hepworth seems to bring a human connection to these slabs of stone and wood, which in itself, is beautiful. Hepworth appears to be able to find spiritual life in the lifeless. I cannot overemphasise how rare this ability is, and the extent to which it can never be taught.

This, in itself, is an aesthetically appealing idea, but the real achievement of Hepworth’s works is the outcomes created by this attitude. Hepworth’s sculptures have an indescribable feeling of ‘rightness’ – they feel unpretentious, unaffected, natural and almost calming. They almost look as if they were made not by the hands of a human, but by the erosions of wind and rain. This is a difficult effect to articulate on paper, but seen in person, the viewer gets the sense that there is no awkwardness in these works, and they don’t stick out or demand too much attention – but neither are they likely to disappear into the background. There are no jagged edges of a clumsy human hand, or exaggerations and signs of effort, but just a serene ‘naturalness’. So many of Hepworth’s works, which, in her own words, are best placed ‘outside and related to the landscape,’ are completely coherent with the natural world. This is evidenced most thoroughly in the Hepworth garden in St Ives, where art and nature feel in complete harmony, in a way so little sculpture tends to be.

Hepworth becomes in tune with the earth and nature, as women have so often been suggested to be throughout the history of art

To an extent, there are both male and female approaches to sculpture. The male approach, in a traditional and mythological sense, might be to dominate the material before you, to bully it, cajole it, and sublimate it to your heroic will. I would argue Hepworth fulfils the female counterpart to this, being what could be called an archetypal feminine approach to sculpture, a sense of working with the material, not against it. Hepworth becomes in tune with the earth and nature, as women have so often been suggested to be throughout the history of art. This is what gives Hepworth’s sculptures a spiritual quality, bursting forth with an ethereal energy. To me, it’s almost like the earth is communicating with you through her work. It also highlights the absurdity of discriminating based on gender for who can be considered a great artist, and highlights the complementary qualities each gender can bring to great art.

If there was to be a critique of Hepworth, it would be that her work, at times, lacks a sort of warmth. Hepworth can be a little too perfect, a little too abstract, almost veering into the so-called ‘icy perfection of a mere stylist’. This critique of Hepworth extends beyond her art and was targeted at her personally – accusations of coldness were levelled at her as she sent her children a young age to live and school elsewhere, in an attempt to balance both art and familial life. I can see where this critique is coming from, however, I believe it misses the mark. Yes, Hepworth’s works are not perhaps, on initial viewing, the most warm or welcoming, and I think there almost a slightly Protestant sense that you ought not to spill your emotions all over the place. However, warmness is there, for those with the eyes to see. For instance, ‘Hieroglyph’ (1953), in my opinion, shows a touching connection between two discernibly human figures, ‘Mother and Child’ (1934) speaks for itself, and ‘Three Forms’ (1935) becomes far more touching when you realise Hepworth herself gave birth to triplets. All these works show an artist not of cold inhumanity, but one highly sensitive to the importance of human relationships: a mother, and someone who knows what it means to rely on people, and have them rely on you.

Hepworth’s art represents the sculptural equivalent of good company

Hepworth, like any artist of note, cannot be disentangled from the time in which they worked. Hepworth, in every sense of the word, is a Modernist sculptor. Modernism, in art, is an extremely complex phenomenon, but to put it extremely crudely, is all about fragmentation and the dissolution of previously held narratives about the world, which left art in a difficult place. What this fragmentation requires is what I would say Hepworth delivers: a return to simpler, more fundamental forms of art, in an attempt for artists to discover new sources of meaning and narratives for life. She avoids pitfalls that other modern artists so often fall into; her work does not devolve into vulgar self-expression, where art is about externalising all the traumas and troubles of your personal life. No-one, not even the great artists, are interesting enough as people for this to be a source of great art. She also does not, as many modern artists have gone on to do, tie her art directly to politics, or activism, although the causes themselves may be noble, this only serves to horribly date any work affected by it, devolving it from the sanctity of art to the crassness of propaganda. Hepworth’s work avoids of all this, it is simple, but eternal.

The themes Hepworth’s work evoke, such as the power of natural forces and the importance of relationships between humans and their landscapes, are eternal, and her work is unlikely to go ‘out-of-date’. Hepworth’s art represents the sculptural equivalent of good company: it sits with you, and while it may not thrust itself at you, it’s patient, and even at a first introduction you get the feeling there is something deeper there. I have got, and continue to get, enormous joy out of the work of Barbara Hepworth, and I hope you will too.


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