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Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life

By Patricia Allmer, 27.06.2022
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Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (9 April 2022 ‐ 2 October 2022). Image courtesy Neil Hanna.

The exhibition, comprising over 120 works, takes viewers on an extraordinary journey, which repeatedly demonstrates how inextricably interwoven are Hepworth’s art and life (the title of both the show and the accompanying substantial and beautifully illustrated publication with Thames & Hudson, by its curator Eleanor Clayton from the Hepworth Wakefield).

As Clayton explains, Hepworth has been most widely known as an abstract sculptor, with people often regarding her work as “detached from the world”. In her lifetime she was criticised for being “cool and restrained”. The exhibition pulls at the seams of this conception of her work, unravelling an oeuvre saturated in human experience. Her art ranged widely across drawing, painting and sculpture, lithography, textile and stage design. She worked with a wealth of materials including an extraordinary diversity of woods, stones, and metals.

Barbara Hepworth, Mother and Child, 1934. Purchased by Wakefield Corporation in 1951. Photo: Jerry Harman-Jones.

The organisation of the exhibition demonstrates the tightness of the oeuvre, its multidirectional growth which never loses focus, but sharpens over time. The first room introduces the insistent presence of three forms through sculptures made over four decades, which Hepworth called “the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form which translates for me the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit.”

From this room visitors are led chronologically through these conceptions in different contexts – from their beginnings in early drawings and life classes, to displays of her larger sculptures, echoing pre‐historic and totemic monuments. Space is dedicated to exploring Hepworth’s concern with the intimate bonds between mother and child (she gave birth to triplets in 1934), exploring forms associated with pregnancy and motherhood – the swellings of a pregnant body, the soft, vulnerable contours of a child’s head.

Barbara Hepworth, Sun Setting (from the Aegean Suite), 1971. Ⓒ Bowness, Hepworth Estate.

This space expands into another showing abstract drawings made in 1939 at Carbis Bay, near St Ives, made against the background pressures of war, childrearing, and a scarcity of sculptural material. On the opposite wall, we see figurative ‘hospital drawings’ from 1948, whose genesis lay in the surgery one of Hepworth’s daughters underwent, showing medical teams preparing and performing operations, with a particular emphasis on the role of hands, their skilfulness and touch.

These drawings surround abstract sculptures made during and immediately after the war years, such as Wave (1943‐4), a masterpiece from the Scottish National Galleries’ collection only on show in Edinburgh due to its fragility. The repeated theme of wood and stone pierced by strings reflects the medical suturing in the drawings and emphasises biomorphic elements of Hepworth’s work. The solidity of stone and wood strangely evoke the softness, warmth and vulnerability of flesh, particularly in the fossil‐like piece Small Stone with Black Strings (1952), its pinkish alabaster stitched with string. This representational plasticity challenges straightforward distinctions between abstraction and figuration, reflecting back onto medico‐ethical considerations of the human body as subject and object. The string‐pierced forms also resemble musical instruments, anticipating the exhibition’s exploration of the importance of music, dance, and movement in Hepworth’s art in spaces dedicated to her stage designs for Electra in 1951 (including Apollo, a beautiful wire‐sculpture seemingly entangled with its own shadow), and her set and costumes for The Midsummer Marriage in 1955.

Barbara Hepworth, Pierced Hemisphere, 1937, White marble, The Hepworth Wakefield (Wakefield Permanent Art Collection). Ⓒ Bowness, Hepworth Estate.

The circular insists emblematically throughout this exhibition, offering spaces to look through or traces engraved on the surfaces of forms, imprinted in lithographs, or drawn and painted. Circles exert a continuous gravitational pull on the viewer’s eye, establishing lines of force linking Hepworth’s art and life with the historical and political contexts on which she drew. The final room cements this centrality in the circular image of the moon, connecting her work with movements such as pop art, and affirming in lunar imagery her conception of the function of sculpture (and art more widely) in relation to human perception, a conception central to this beautiful exhibition: “A sculpture might, and sculptures do, reside in emptiness; but nothing happens until the living human encounters the image. Then the magic occurs – the magic of scale and weight, form and texture, colour and movement, the encircling interplay and dance occurs between the object and the human sensibility.”

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (9 April 2022 ‐ 2 October 2022)