Barbara Hepworth - Among the Sculptures in the Garden
Jul 8, 2016
Barbara Hepworth possessed something few of us have but most of us desire: balance. She was a critical thinker with respect for intuition. Her sculptures contain a mix of organic vitality and intellectual purity that borders on the divine. They possess an instantly recognizable essence that viewers relate to on an animal level. Yet something else about them seems otherworldly, beyond the simplicity of hand tools and the human mind. One of the 20th Century’s most accomplished sculptors, Hepworth witnessed the horrors of global war and the struggle to rebuild the world afterward. Throughout her life she never abandoned her belief in the transformative nature of art. We recently had the pleasure of touring the extensive collection of her work on exhibition at the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden in St. Ives. In the presence of this tremendous body of work we felt transformed.
A Sort of Magic
The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is located on the grounds of Trewyn Studio, Hepworth’s former home and workshop. When Hepworth first discovered Trewyn in the idyllic, beachside town of St. Ives, she called it “a sort of magic.” She celebrated it not only for the beautiful setting, but also for the outdoor space where she could make and display her work. Trewyn allowed her to transition into working with bronze and to create works on a larger scale. As her needs demanded it, she acquired neighboring property and eventually enjoyed the capabilities of creating monumental commissions.
The collection now on display, which is managed by the Tate, is the fulfillment of the desire she expressed in her will for Trewyn to be transformed into a museum. The space has been splendidly restored to appear to a large degree as it was when she worked there, and so feels less like a museum and more like a functional workspace. Examining the products of Hepworth’s vast artistic range up close in such an intimate setting, we couldn’t help but be moved by how her work so elegantly marries human vision with the natural world.
Single Form by Barbara Hepworth
One of the most powerful examples on display of Hepworth’s unique ability to express the marriage of natural and human processes is the sculpture Single Form, carved from Walnut in 1961. The form seems engineered, yet it is so subtly shaped that it seems the forces of wind or water could have created it over a period of centuries. The wood’s natural character speaks with emotion equal to that of the form itself. Hepworth created a much larger variation of this form in bronze for the entrance of the Headquarters of the United Nations. That piece, also called Single Form, has graced the reflecting pool at the UN since 1964. Its somewhat figurative, somewhat ovular shape evokes an egg, a timeless symbol of nature, potential and rebirth, perfectly expressing the humanist ideals that inspired the best intentions of the UN’s mission of peace.
Alabaster, Marble and Bronze
The garden at Trewyn was a place of special importance for Hepworth. In it now stands an incredible assortment of stone and bronze works, among which is a group of forms that appear to have gathered there on their own, with intent. Hepworth created Conversation With Magic Stones in 1973. Its current surroundings, which include a ground layer of grey slate and tufts of bamboo, seem also to have been invited to the conversation. The sculptures are imbued with such presence that to view them feels eerily like an interruption.
A similar magic emanates from the many marble and alabaster works on display throughout the museum. Two Forms, a work carved out of white alabaster in 1934, is arresting both in its simplicity and its translucent beauty. Atop their base, the forms quietly evoke connectivity, confidence and frailty. Something as old as the minerals that make up this sculpture’s rare material is at work in this piece. And yet Hepworth’s marble works, such as Group II (People Waiting) from 1952, convey a different presence. They seem neither mystical nor ancient. Rather they communicate Hepworth’s own mastery. They speak to the sublime aesthetic accomplishment that’s possible when an artist, her materials, and her vision are in harmony.
The Stone Carving Studio
One of the most thrilling aspects of the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is the chance to spend time in Hepworth’s workspace, the Lower Ground Studio, where she carved stone. A renowned Modernist sculptor, Hepworth’s critical thinking, aesthetic mindset, mastery of technology and worldview were thoroughly contemporary with her time. And yet when you step into her stone carving studio, except for an electric fan the entire workspace and almost everything inside of it might just have easily come from centuries before.
Hepworth’s timeless respect for technique and craftsmanship, and for the preservation of a meaningful environment is evident everywhere. It emanates from every surface in her workspace, from every tool, from every partially completed sculpture, and from every bump and crack in the architecture.
That respect for craftsmanship and mastery of materials is profoundly evident in one of the museum’s most striking forms, a sculpture titled Pierced Form (Epidauros), which Hepworth carved in 1960 from a piece of Guarea wood, a tropical evergreen. The subtitle, Epidauros, is a reference to the Greek island that’s home to the temple of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine. The temple also happens to be known for its incredible sculptures.
The aptly named Pierced Form (Epidauros) correctly suggests that these unforgettable surrounding and the works that inhabit them rival Epidauros itself. But Hepworth’s smocks and overalls hanging on the Medieval-looking door of her stone-carving studio remind us that this isn’t a temple to some god. A frail and flawed human created each of these amazing objects. Each hand made mark speaks to the true medicine their presence fills us with, the medicine of Hepworth’s depth of heart, sincerity and vision, and the lasting natural beauty of her work.
Featured Image: Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives - The Lower Ground Studio. © Barbara Hepworth
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio