Defining Figure: Barbara Hepworth at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Wave', 1943-1944. Image National Galleries of Scotland
Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Wave', 1943-1944. Image National Galleries of Scotland

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life

Sun - Tue, 10:00 - 17:00, advance booking required

From: 9 Apr 2022

To: 2 Oct 2022

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)
Modern One
75 Belford Road
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art‘s Modern Two site has recently opened up the biggest survey show of Barbara Hepworth’s work since her death in 1975. This is a unique occasion to engage with the work of one of the defining figures of British Modernism. Across the more than 120 artworks that the National Galleries of Scotland have brought together in this multifaceted exhibit, the audience is guided through all of Hepworth’s key developments.

Hepworth’s work is presented in a chronological order that guides the visitors from her early figurative years until her later abstract creations. Although she is primarily known for her abstract sculptures, this extraordinary showcase demonstrates her artistic versatility by displaying an array of paintings, lithography and three-dimensional works in a variety of media. The curatorial approach has remarkably created a visual dialogue between these different works showing how Hepworth explored recurring ideas and themes across a variety of media and periods. For example, in the first room the presence of a negative space in Pierced Hemisphere I 1937 is mirrored in the two lithograph works hung behind it. 

'Pierced Hemisphere I', Severazza marble, 1937. In the background, 'Genesis', lithograph 1969
‘Pierced Hemisphere I’, Severazza marble, 1937. In the background, ‘Genesis’, lithograph, 1969

Similarly, in the last room of the exhibition, the spherical shape of the marble sculpture Cone and Sphere 1973 is echoed in the circular forms of Genesis III from 1966, exhibited in the background. Because of the expert curation of the exhibition, the different rooms appear visually coherent, emphasising through their setup the theme of relationality that the artist explores in her works.

'Cone and Sphere,' white marble, 1973. In the background, 'Genesis III', oil and pencil on board, 1966
‘Cone and Sphere,’ white marble, 1973. In the background, ‘Genesis III’, oil and pencil on board, 1966

Key themes of Hepworth’s works are human relations, the connection of individuals with nature, and movement. Three key shapes appear across her work: one, captured in works like Totem 1961-62 is the ‘standing form’ – the artist wrote that for her this singular elongated form expressed the feeling of a human being standing in a landscape. 

'Totem', marble, 1961-62 © Bowness. Photo: Jerry Hardman -Jones
‘Totem’, marble, 1961-62 © Bowness. Photo: Jerry Hardman -Jones

The second one is the ‘two forms’, which she defined as ‘the tender relationship of one living things beside another.’ She created multiple Mother and Child works exploring this form, especially around 1933-4, possibly influenced by her experience as mother of a toddler and pregnant with triplets. 

'Mother and Child', Pink Ancaster stone, 1934 © Bowness. Image Jerry Hardman-Jones
‘Mother and Child’, Pink Ancaster stone, 1934 © Bowness. Image Jerry Hardman-Jones

Lastly, the ‘closed form’ included ovals, spherical or pierced forms that for Hepworth expressed the embrace of living things, including human connections as well as individuals’ bond with nature. The use of this device coincided with her move towards pure abstraction. Hepworth’s interests in connections and relationships are visualised in her sculpture by the presence of wires. These materialise the human longing and striving for a communion with the other, as well as with nature. Examples of her use of wire are visible in works like Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red), 1940, and Wave, 1943-4, inspired by natural landscape after her departure from London in 1939.

'Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red)', painted plaster with string, 1940
‘Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red)’, painted plaster with string, 1940
Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Wave', 1943-1944. Image National Galleries of Scotland
Dame Barbara Hepworth, ‘Wave’, 1943-1944. Image National Galleries of Scotland

Another key element in Hepworth’s worth is movement, influenced by a Modernist sentiment of awe towards mechanisation and speed, shared by many contemporary artists born at the beginning of the 20th century. She wrote, ‘the problem is how to extend the forms beyond the capacity of stone and wood’ – the primary materials she used for most of her career. Hepworth tested the stability and the static nature of the medium of sculpture, eventually finding a resolution in her use of bronze that allowed her to expand the possibilities of sculptural expression. In her late career she identified ‘arrested movement’ as one of the qualities she associated with metal, as the medium captured the fluidity she strived for. Movement goes beyond Hepworth’s creations, and it infiltrates into the viewers’ experience of her work as the audience – thanks to the curatorial set-up – is forced to engage dynamically with her pieces by walking around them. 

Through this dynamic physical encounter with the sculptures, the artist aimed to encourage the viewer to reflect on their perceptions and experiences of space and the world. In the presence of Hepworth’s work, the viewers gain awareness of themselves and the relations that connect the singular to the universal, one individual to another through their humanity and that of humans and nature. In her late career she developed this concept by creating interactive sculptures possibly influenced by the 1960s focus on participatory art practices and installations. The exhibition presents this interest through Maquette for Walk-In, 1970 a small-scale preparatory bronze piece that stood for a larger one, where viewers could move inside as well as around the sculpture. The interactivity of her later sculpture finally satisfies the tension connecting the viewer to highly tactile works that call to be engaged with. 

The layout of the exhibition clearly privileges an aesthetic principle that spotlights the simply breathtaking quality of Hepworth works. The spiritual, awe-inspiring nature of her art is epitomised in the monumental sculptures that immediately evoke the sacrality of monolithic stones and ancient icons, like Single Form (Antiphon) 1953 or Dyad 1949. The impact of Hepworth’s faith in her art is evident as she wrote, ‘a sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit.’ 

'Maquette for Walk-In', bronze with white and green patina, 1970
‘Maquette for Walk-In’, bronze with white and green patina, 1970
Exhibition view including 'Single Form (Antiphon),' boxwood, 1953, and 'Dyad', Himalayan rosewood, 1949
Exhibition view including ‘Single Form (Antiphon),’ boxwood, 1953, and ‘Dyad’, Himalayan rosewood, 1949

The aesthetic and stylistic-oriented curation at times obscures other important themes that remain a constant but hidden fil-rouge across the exhibition. For example, Hepworth’s gendered experience, her role of care giver as mother and wife, and the discrimination she faced because of it, in a male-dominated modernist art world – all these experiences, across scattered labels, emerge as fundamental influences in her work. Addressing them in a more direct way might have spotlighted how some of her most incredible works and ideas were inspired by her traditional ‘feminine’ qualities and gendered experiences: her intimate relationship with children, or the caring and compassionate approach to the world she had informed by her motherhood. A curation emphasising these qualities as a positive creative force could have redeemed the label ‘feminine’, used too often in a diminishing way to talk about art executed by women whose caring roles especially are positioned in antithesis to the creativity of male ‘genius’.

Another theme that could be evinced throughout the exhibition was Hepworth’s interest in social justice. Through archival materials, such as an extract from the publication Circle: international survey of Constructive Art, the exhibition showed that Hepworth came to abstract shapes for the immediacy she believed the materiality and physicality of her work could transmit to the audience. She wrote, ‘the language of colour and form is universal and not one for a special class.’ Although Hepworth held the belief that her art and its messages were open to all, she embedded her works with symbolistic meanings through highly intellectualised processes, tapping into spiritualism, mathematics and physics, and her personal subjectivity.

The interpretation of such meanings is not immediate, but needs a key to its reading. Although the exhibition offers such explanations, they are often presented in highly academic language and in fragmentary ways, scattered across the more than a hundred labels of the artworks, rather than clearly introduced on the large wall writings. This approach feels counter to Hepworth’s project of universality and didn’t appear to me particularly accessible. However, I appreciated that this curatorial technique can encourage an individual reading of the works, supporting the visitors’ subjective interpretation, rather than imposing the one envisioned by the author.

Hepworth’s stunning works create a grounding, spiritual experience that leads the audience to consider in-depth their relations with others, with the exhibition space and with nature. Connections are the protagonists of this exhibition, in its artworks as well as in the way it is curated. Building on shared ideas, feelings and aesthetics, the single forms of individual visitors become a ‘closed form’: one with the exhibition, the art and the other individuals who are moved by the awe-inspiring shapes used by Barbara Hepworth’s synthesis of the human experience.

With thanks to Sofia Cotrona for this review.

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