Having seen the Hepworth exhibition in 2015 at the Tate Britain, I was looking forward to the show at The Towner Gallery but also a little worried that I would be underwhelmed due to familiarity. Well, of course, I wasn’t underwhelmed. I was immersed. Glad I went, glad I spent time with her sculpture and glad I spent time with Barbara Hepworth, the person, as well as the objects. This is an ‘Art & Life’ show, and it feels like a biopic, but one which concentrates on her strengths as a human woman, as a mother and as a sculptor rather than the wife of her controversial second husband, Ben Nicholson, which is often the focus when people present a study of her life. Yes, he did have a significant influence on her work, reportedly causing it to be more severe and geometric. Still, this turning point is nicely placed in the context of her artistic journey rather than dominating the story.
What struck me today was the influence of Hepworth’s shapes and studies on set design for some of the films whose environments I admire and enjoy.
Ironic that I’m starting this review in this way, but it does mark a change that we’re at right now in how women artists are being presented. Hepworth was frustrated by the refusal to take women artists as seriously as men, as this exhibition points out, so it’s about time.
I don’t need to tell Hepworth’s story in this review or sum up the show as – well, she’s Barbara Hepworth, but I can give my own personal thoughts of where I’m at in my own relationship with the show and her work and how my own interests are playing out right now as an artist and writer. Maybe those thoughts will resonate with some of you and be less filtered than a formal review, which is often a good thing in the world of rehashed press releases and cut-and-paste interbotactivity.
What struck me today was the influence of Hepworth’s shapes and studies on set design for some of the films whose environments I admire and enjoy. The 1960s and early 1970s modernist movies creak and roll with interiors that seem impossibly interesting and attractive, that heighten atmosphere and psychological action. Spy movies, detective stories, love stories, career stories, mod movies . . . I often peer behind the actors at their rooms. There’s a large photo of Hepworth with many sculptures she has shaped, which greet the visitor entering the gallery, and it cleverly plunges me into this world, and I’m thinking of Hepworth’s influence and the influence of other modernist sculptors onto the design that I enjoy from these times. Elsewhere in the show, the ‘Single Form’ is on show, including the video she recorded during its presentation. ‘Single Form’ is the large bronze piece displayed at the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City, and it has influenced so many logos and idents on educational television, in particular the Open University logo, which impressed and influenced me as a young person beginning a life in art and design. It was powerful to spend time with this side of Hepworth’s public art.
When Hepworth began to simply form into her standing figures, I feel extraordinarily moved by the result. The gallery display fills in a background through information about Hepworth’s thoughts on spirituality, process and the power of abstraction, and its connection to the ancients. She talked about standing stones, about the quality in these and naturally occurring rocks to stimulate thoughts of godlike forces in the planet, and brings out her own feelings of how natural it is for humans to project their emotions onto the landscape. She easily slips into relating these qualities of humans now and then into the far past, bridging the gap between present-day and ancestors. But the exhibition does not overdo this exposition. There’s a light enough hand to keep me enjoying the philosophical journey and feel connected to Hepworth’s ideology of sculpture.
As a printmaker, I have often admired Hepworth’s drawings and lithographs, which are well-displayed and integrated here. Balances of the sun and moon, circles, lines, arcs and connecting lines, in an abstract exploration of force and universe, are depicted around the room in her simplicity and well-achieved elegance. She is always to the point, elegant and fine, and was not afraid to show what it was that interested her without channelling the same image for its own sake. There’s a great sense of purpose in Hepworth’s work, and this applies to her prints and drawings as well as her sculpture. It’s a treat to see this selection alongside each other. Her yellow hue prints feel particularly pleasing to me for their own beauty, and maybe there’s something that really reminds me of the feeling of the sun and its life-giving rays, let perhaps dallying in a pencil shade in these works. Plus, yellow can be a hard colour for artists, so when it works well, it feels rare, and an unusual experience has been achieved.
Hepworth’s stone pieces are quite incredible, but I find it hard to get beyond my instinctive or learned responses to polished marble. They seem at the core of her work, a solid pale immovable centre to what she is about, but yet I am unable to extract my mind from the context of the contemporary obsession with bathroom and kitchen marble top surfaces. The rounded polished stone keeps making me think about sinks and toilets and baths even though I try really hard not to, and I think that is just a testament to how obsessed my generation has been with home improvements and modern bathrooms, ensuites and kitchens. I find the bronzes much easier to respond to without the unwelcome intrusion of these associations.
As someone who works in bronze, I can feel the fire and the heat and the age in these monumental pieces. My childhood view of this material was forged by my television visits to the ‘Isle of Bronze’ where the great statue of Talos awoke and creaked his bronze arms and legs into uncanny action. Bronze has a high status in the art world, and its surface and weight bear divine significance for ancient culture that resonates through to today. It can be mimicked with bronze resin, but the real material seems to vibrate with metallic coldness, especially when worked into strong shapes. Hepworth no doubt feels the power of the Greek myth of male physical strength and moral vulnerability as opposed to the gods’ immortality calling her bronze ‘Torso (Ulysses);’ (1958). I was so pleased to get up close to one of this edition of six. And that’s one of the strengths of this exhibition, the ability to get up close to such phenomenal works of art. Hepworth’s skill in distilling ideas in form to emotionally moving shapes comes to the fore in these bronzes for me.
Her pieces with strings that evoke ancient harps, music and mathematical structures are perhaps her most signature work for me. When I see such a form, I immediately think of Hepworth. They are well represented here with her brass and string ‘Orpheus (Maquette 1) (1956). I think this work shows her at her best. The poise, balance and individuality; the balanced bronze, on point, the wing-like reach of the tapered bronze, the way in which her prints have come to life in the material. Physical objects, designed, worked, thought and wrought, this is what sculpture does well, and it can move me to tears.
Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, The Towner Gallery, Eastbourne 27 May to 3 September 2023