Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life

Take a tour through the exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975) is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. She was at the forefront of multiple avant-garde art movements, with wide-ranging interests that infused her work. This major exhibition of Hepworth’s work marks the 10th birthday of The Hepworth Wakefield, the gallery founded in her name in 2011, in the city of her birth.

Forms of Life

Looking back on her work, Hepworth identified three important sculptural forms to which she continually returned. The ‘standing form’, the ‘two forms’ and the ‘closed form’ are represented in this gallery in sculptures made over four decades. All the works in this gallery are from Yorkshire collections, highlighting both the county’s support of Hepworth throughout her career and the artist’s lifelong connection with her place of birth.

Hepworth in Yorkshire

Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield on 10 January 1903. Hepworth attended Wakefield Girls’ High School, where the headmistress, Miss McCroben, introduced her to sculpture. Encouraged by McCroben to take the Junior County Scholarship exam to attend Leeds School of Art, Hepworth began her studies in Leeds in 1920, at the age of 17.

An Expanding World

In 1921 Hepworth won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art, entering what she described as ‘an expanding world’. While most sculpture at this time was made by modelling in clay, Hepworth was probably also taught some stone or wood carving, reflecting the rise in ‘direct carving’, in which the artist cut directly into the sculptural material.

After graduating, Hepworth travelled to Italy on a West Riding travel grant, where she met the sculptor John Skeaping. They travelled together through Tuscany in early 1925 and fell in love, marrying in Florence in May 1925. Hepworth and Skeaping returned to London in 1926 and began to establish their careers, moving to the Mall Studios, Hampstead, in 1928, where they lived alongside other contemporary artists. 

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

A New Order

The early 1930s were a period of considerable change for Hepworth. Her marriage broke down, and in 1931 she began a relationship with another artist, Ben Nicholson. Their shared interests and influences, from spirituality to the Parisian avant-garde,  encouraged a disintegration of the boundaries between sculpture and painting, fine art and other disciplines, and ultimately between art and life.

War Work

In late August 1939, Hepworth and Ben Nicholson took their children to stay with critic Adrian Stokes and artist Margaret Mellis in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, accepting the invitation to get out of London as war approached. Hepworth found herself with a lack of time or space to work and sculptural materials were also scarce. Drawing became her main creative outlet.

Two Figures (1947) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Concentration, Movement & Gesture

Hepworth’s ‘hospital drawings’ marked a return to figurative art following the pure geometric abstraction of her pre-war work. She saw these different approaches – figurative and abstract – as being essentially connected, and wrote to critic Herbert Read, ‘Working realistically replenishes one’s love for life, humanity & the earth. Working abstractly seems to release one’s personality & sharpen the perceptions… The two ways of working flow into each without effort.’

Vertical Forms (1951) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Figures in Unity

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hepworth’s work explored the relationship of two figures in varying degrees of contact and harmony across painting and sculpture. These observations fuelled her enthusiasm for the cooperation between artists and architects as society was rebuilt following the war. 

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

Rhythms of the Stones

Hepworth had drawn parallels between abstract art and music in the early 1930s, and in the late 1940s she began titling her works after musical elements, around the same time as she met the composer Priaulx Rainier.  In the summer of 1950 Rainier composed Rhythms of the Stones, fragments notating the sound of Hepworth and her assistants carving the two monumental figures of Contrapuntal Forms.    

Barbara Hepworth with Apollo at Trewyn, Cornwall (1951) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Electra

 ‘Before the war the Old Vic Company frequently included a Greek play in its repertory, and now that the company is back in its own theatre this practice is to be revived. The first Greek play to be given in the restored  theatre will be Sophocles’ Electra, with Miss Peggy Ashcroft in the name part. It will be produced by Mr Michel Saint-Denis, with sets and costumes designed by Miss Barbara Hepworth.’

~The Times, February 1951

Electra is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Sophocles’ stage directions suggest that the action take place before the main gate of the palace of Mycenae, with the god Apollo’s temple on the left. Hepworth created Apollo in sculptural form using wire, positioned on a base with fluted corners that suggests a temple building or altar.   

The Midsummer Marriage

In 1954 the composer Michael Tippett invited Hepworth to design the set and costumes for  his opera, The Midsummer Marriage, which opened at the Royal Opera House in 1955. The opera is set in a woodland clearing with buildings, including a Greek temple on one side and a cave on the other. Hepworth designed the buildings and temple as a multitude of overlapping squares and coloured rectangles.

Barbara Hepworth, costume design for a ritual dancer for The Midsummer Marriage (1954) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Her annotated costume designs show a similar focus on colour and material, and a sensitivity to the human form in movement. The ‘Ritual Dances’ were accompanied by the most sculptural elements of Hepworth’s design, and she wrote, ‘the trees were verticals of wood with spaces for the dancers & a full play of changing light.’

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

Metal & Movement

In 1956, after a period of around 30 years, Hepworth returned to making sculptures in bronze. Her enthusiasm for working in metal at this time could be related to her increasing professional success. Casting in metal meant editions could be made of the same work. Metal sculptures were also more durable than carvings, making them more suitable for the increasing number of international exhibitions in which she was invited to take part.

Project (Spring Morning) (1957) by Babara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

More importantly, Hepworth found that working in metal expanded the possibilities of sculptural expression.  Certain ideas called for fluid forms, like the movement of dance and music or the ephemeral nature of spirituality. This focus on movement is echoed in her paintings of this period, which use expressive brushstrokes and dynamic forms.     

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

Single Form

Hepworth remained engaged with political debates in the post-war period, becoming an advocate for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1956, Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations, selected one of Hepworth’s sculptures for his office, starting a correspondence that became a friendship. 

Hammarskjöld had considered commissioning a sculpture by Hepworth for the pool in front of the UN Headquarters in New York. In September 1960 Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash, and the Single Form (1961-4) commission proceeded in his memory. 

Rhythm, Dance & Everything

Alongside her major public commissions, Hepworth maintained a prolific sculptural output during the 1960s. In 1961she took on a new studio in St Ives, the Palais de Danse, a former dance, to allow for these larger works and invigorated output. Hepworth placed her sculptures on specially made rubber-wheeled plinths to ‘dance’ them around the studio.

Hepworth & Riley

Hepworth’s focus on viewer interaction found particular resonance in the 1960s, when there was an increase in participatory art practices, such as installation art, in which the viewer experienced the work of art as a physical environment. She made several works that the viewer could move inside as well as around. 

Installation image of Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life. May 2021. Photo: Nick Singleton. (2021)The Hepworth Wakefield

The 1960s also saw the emergence of Op Art, in which geometric forms were used to create dynamic optical effects. These works recalled Hepworth’s pre-war visual language to which she was increasingly returning.  Hepworth was attuned to new developments in contemporary art and corresponded and exhibited with leading Op Art painter Bridget Riley. Riley’s paintings here were selected in consultation with the artist.

Sun & Moon

Hepworth lived in a time of astonishing technological advances and believed that these should inform the creative arts. The development of aviation was a case in point, from the first passenger transatlantic flights in the 1930s to the beginnings of space exploration. The moon became a repeated presence in her work, with circles symbolising celestial bodies appearing across prints and sculptures made in a variety of materials.

Two Opposing Forms (Grey and Green) (1972) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

An Act of Praise

In the 1970s Hepworth continued to experiment with new materials and techniques, while returning to the forms that had held special meaning for her since childhood. Three sculptures here show a ‘single form’, ‘two forms’ and ‘closed form' made in her final years.  Her repeated use of circles or spheres, while relating to space exploration, also reflect her faith in Christian Science. 

By 1974, due to illness, she was largely confined to the upper room at Trewyn Studio, continuing to make sculpture with the aid of a few trusted assistants. She died in an accidental fire at the studio the following year. Her passion for making art remained undimmed to the end: ‘I have never never never felt bored with my work or in working. In fact I get such intense & sensuous pleasure out of it that it is almost a Yorkshire sin!’   

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