Born On This Day / The Sculptures of Dame Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Gardens, Tate St Ives. Source: Creative Commons

Recently, I listened to podcast on the Spotify channel ‘Art Attack’, with art historian Lizy Dastin and visual artist Justin BAU, where the pair discussed a topic previously unknown to me – earth art. The episodes raises issues with the theme such as artists who deliberately take from the earth for their creative purposes without replacing what they took. The opposite were artists who worked in cooperation with the earth and used it to their creative advantage without exploiting its precious balance. Immediately came to my mind was Barbara Hepworth, born this day Sunday 8th January.

“…art needs humanity to complete itself…

Walzedamar Januszack on podcast ‘Waldy and Bendy’ on Spotify, 2020.

Her works are a seamless infusion of art and landscape, art and the earth. There is no surprise to see her sculptures placed effortlessly amongst trees and fields as the works lend themselves to this particular scenery. As art critic Waldemar Januszczak said in his Spotify podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, “art needs humanity to complete himself”. For the sculptures of Hepworth, this means the complete immersion of and interaction with nature, humanity, and art. One cannot flourish without the other.

After moving to St Ives in 1939 Hepworth became more involved in the development of figures in landscapes. Responding to her description of depicting what she feels in her body in her artwork, Hepworth remains immortalised as part of nature and the landscape around her sculptures. This then allows the viewers to put themselves in her place and see themselves as part of the Earth around them. Hepworth primarily worked at Trenwyn Studio in Cornwall, now known as the Barbara Hepworth museum. Many of the sculptures have remained in the places Hepworth placed them, giving the works more sentimental and purposeful value amid the surroundings.

Hepworth Museum. Source: Creative Commons

In an interview for Studio magazine in 1946 Hepworth listed her main source of inspiration as “the human figure and landscape; also the relation in one to the other”. Her sculptures are not meant to be placed on a bare wall in an empty gallery space, glanced at by people who have no intention to stop and look as they walk past. Hepworth’s sculptures belong outside where they can become a seamless and integral part of nature. Art and nature do not have to be separated from one another, instead each can benefit from the other in an organic, on-going cyclical process.

Winged Figure seen on Holles Street, London. Source: Wikiart.

Hepworth’s sculptures are not just seen in green landscapes. As cities have expanded and infiltrated the natural world, patches of urban environments have become an unlikely home to art. Hepworth’s work Winged Figure from 1963 has been displayed near London’s Oxford Street, now mounted on the south-east side of the John Lewis department store, since its creation. Placed in urban, residential locations amid bustling cities, Hepworth’s sculptures mimic the materials of the surrounding world. The marked metal and fused shapes reflect the nearby tower blocks and concrete streets. In this way, having her sculptures placed in urban environments reminds us that beauty can also be found away from the serene settings of nature. Art can be architecturally beautiful and mimic the buildings we see and use everyday.

Immersive art encourages us to take a break from our daily commute. Source: Creative Commons

As cities continue to grow, councils have recognised the need to change the way art is viewed by placing sculptures in amongst the city itself. Harlow in Essex has created its own ‘Sculpture Town’, home to over one hundred public artworks by artists including Hepworth, Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink and Auguste Rodin. Harlow has designated a space in the centre of town to display artworks for the public’s daily enjoyment, thus eradicating the need for the confined gallery space whatsoever. In light of the restrictions of Covid-19, could this be the way forward for the art world?

Could Harlow’s Sculpture Town be the future of public art? Source: Radical Essex.

“I rarely draw what I see – I draw what I feel in my body.”

Barbara Hepworth, ‘A Sculptor’s Landscape’, in Drawings from a Sculptor’s Landscape, London 1966, p.11.
Sculpture in St Ives. Source: Creative Commons

Hepworth’s sculptures remind us of the immortality of art. Their large forms and metal structures are an unavoidable performance showcasing art’s ceaselessness. They are permanent and yet transient. The sun will cast infinite shadows on the sculptures crevices and endless reflections will highlight their surfaces. Plants will change and grow around them, changing the sculpture’s natural frame day by day. This is a pinnacle example of what earth art should be – interacting with and enhancing nature yet leaving it undisturbed. Hepworth’s work will forever remind us of the synchronicities between art, human and nature; nature, human and art.

Museum and Sculpture Garden. Souce: Tate

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