Major Barbara

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 12

Major Barbara

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 12

Major Barbara

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 12

Barbara Hepworth has re-emerged as a key figure of 20th-century art. Mark Hudson charts the abstract sculptor's rise to prominence, and how her move to St Ives shaped her work

Barbara Hepworth divides people, now perhaps more than ever. That the Yorkshire sculptor is a major world figure isn't in doubt. For some she's the serene earth mother of British modernism, whose abstract-organic forms project an intrinsically feminine sense of strength and reassurance. For others she's more of a black widow figure, who ruthlessly used the assistants who made most of the work of her latter years, and who exerted a near-tyrannical hold over the art scene in St Ives, where she lived from the outbreak of the Second World War until her death aged 72, in 1975, in a fire caused by a smoldering cigarette.

Small in stature and reserved in demeanor, Hepworth remains a formidable presence in British art, overshadowing even the artist with whom she is most closely associated, her sometime husband Ben Nicholson. Yet the fact that one of her most well-known and most visible works stands on the side of John Lewis' department store in London's Oxford Street is telling. For many its presence is emblematic of the emancipatory function of art during the post-war political consensus, the idea that the ordinary shopper is as entitled to the proximity of great art as the banker or the aristocrat. For others the work is symptomatic of the bland and essentially decorative character of Hepworth's art; a work that was hardly cutting edge even in its time, that perfectly complements a foray into the world of never knowingly undersold soft-furnishings.

Now, however, with a revival of interest in Hepworth well under way and a major retrospective looming (at Tate Britain from June 2015), it's a good time to look into the background of a work closely associated with the John Lewis sculpture, which tells its own tale about Hepworth's art and its significance.

Barbara Hepworth was born in 1903 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in a hilly agricultural landscape that was then encrusted with heavy industry, particularly mining. The beauty of nature and the violence of man's impact upon it were all around her from the outset. Her father, a civil engineer and later County Surveyor, took her on work journeys, encouraging an exploratory nature.

Hepworth studied at Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where she absorbed two principles prevalent in the avant garde sculpture of the time. One was 'direct carving' – a technique explored by the likes of Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska and her near contemporary and friend Henry Moore, in which form is revealed from a block of stone or marble during the process of execution, rather than being recreated by a mason from the sculptor's maquette, as was then common practice. The other was 'truth to materials', the idea that the character of the material is intrinsic to the resultant form.

Hepworth's early representational sculpture, produced alongside the work of her first husband and fellow sculptor, John Skeaping, enjoyed considerable commercial success. But as she moved further into abstraction, her life became more complicated. In 1931, she met the painter Ben Nicholson, nine years her senior, and the following year the pair moved in together, sharing a home and studio in Parkhill Road, Hampstead, a location that was to become the focus for London's seminal modernist community, with Moore, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Walter Gropius and other leading figures all living in close proximity.

Hepworth's marriage to Skeaping was dissolved in 1933, while Nicholson had left his first wife Winifred, also a considerable artist. While both earlier marriages are understood to have run their course, it is as though Skeaping and Winifred Nicholson were sacrificed as people and as artists in the creation of the Hepworth-Nicholson partnership, and their role as the sacred monsters of British modernism.

In 1939, with war imminent, the couple moved to St Ives, an event that was critical in turning the town into a mid-20th century modern-art Mecca. Yet far from being a seaside idyll, Hepworth's first years in Cornwall were extremely difficult. Her daughter Sarah, one of triplets, faced continual health problems. With the euphoria of modernist Hampstead long behind them, they were short of money and cramped for space. For a time, Hepworth's future as a sculptor was in doubt.

Gradually the influence of the Cornish landscape made itself felt, and her essentially constructivist abstract sculpture became more organic in feel. Things improved only slowly after the war but, with her showings in the Venice Biennale in 1950 and the Festival of Britain in 1951, she took a central role in the great wave of post-war British public sculpture and her rise to prominence became unstoppable. These developments coincided with a shift in interest from carved stone or wood to cast bronze sculpture.

In 1958, before the John Lewis sculpture, but leading directly to it, Hepworth received another major commercial commission. This resulted in Meridian, her first public sculpture in bronze for the open courtyard of State House, a 16-story office block in London's High Holborn. Against the rigidly rectilinear projected building, Hepworth conceived of a form influenced by her interest in Tachism, the gestural abstract painting that then dominated art in Paris: a looping band of bronze that appeared to uncoil like some impulsive swirling brush mark hanging in space.

Far from being impulsive in its construction, Meridian, which stood nearly four times human height, was realized through a laboriously formed wooden armature – based on Hepworth's original 'spontaneous' maquette – then covered in plaster, before being expertly cast in Paris. A smaller version of the work stands in Hepworth's garden.

One work in Hepworth's oeuvre that resembles Meridian is Cantate Domino, also created in 1958, and which will be offered this November in Bonhams Modern British Sale, as part of the Arnold and Barbara Burton Collection. Cantate Domino has a similar bronze band structure to Meridian, but rather than the closed, looping form seen in the latter work, it has upward-projecting bands that remain open at the top, in a sinuous upward-flowing double form. With a green patina and standing nearly eight feet high, Cantate Domino might appear to represent a flame or an upward grasping hand – reaching perhaps for freedom – a notion that would accord with Hepworth's life-long espousal of liberal causes. While Hepworth's intention was probably entirely abstract, it is difficult not to read some figurative inference, however fugitive, into the work.

After the dissolution of her marriage to Nicholson in 1951, Hepworth remained in St Ives, living in the studio in the center of the town that is now open to the public, and which has contributed to St Ives's identity as an art town. She had become a sort of living monument long before her death in 1975.

In photographs, Hepworth's features display always the same mask of serene determination. Rather than offering incisive self-criticism, her autobiography is a catalog of obstacles overcome in the struggle towards triumphant self-realisation. But then her career was in many ways a struggle. She emerged at a time when the right to experiment and create new forms still had to be fought for.

While much modern art has celebrated violence and disorder, Hepworth's forms exude a positive energy and sense of self-fulfilling wholeness, a striving towards a harmony that is essentially classical in character. Such notions may not have been fashionable over the past few decades, but the revival of interest in Hepworth suggests these will have increasing value in a climate of steadily building global turmoil. It is that sense of enduring humanity that will keep Hepworth to the fore, long after most of the art of today has been forgotten.

Mark Hudson writes about art and music. His most recent book is Titian: The Last Days.

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