Barbara Hepworth: the heart of abstract sculpture


Out of all the art forms, sculpture was often the one I somehow found intriguing yet entirely inaccessible. While I find the works of the likes of Auguste Rodin or Alberto Giacometti fascinating, something about their use of hard bronze and clear-cut lines create a sense of separation between art and viewer. For this reason, Barbara Hepworth was the first sculptor whose work I developed an emotional affinity with. Her care with space results in seemingly organic pieces distinct from the harsher shapes produced by her predecessors and contemporaries.   

Hepworth easily ranks as one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. Born in Yorkshire in 1903, she began her career in the 1920s, attending Leeds School of Art, alongside her fellow infamous sculptor, Henry Moore. In the early 1930s, Hepworth began travelling around Europe, encountering artists like Piet Mondrian and Sophie Taeuber-Arp and engaging with the international abstract art scene. However, with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Hepworth settled in St Ives, which would ultimately remain her home for the rest of her life. 

Her care with space results in seemingly organic pieces distinct from the harsher shapes produced by her predecessors

Though many responses have focussed on the importance of form and texture when examining Hepworth’s art, her pieces also highlight the range of relationships present between viewer and sculpture, art and nature, and the human form and its surroundings. As she puts it “I think every sculpture must be touched, it’s part of the way you make it and it’s really our first sensibility, it is the sense of feeling … we have when we’re born.” 

When you examine Hepworth’s work, constituting over 600 different pieces of sculpture, this notion of organic form is therefore very much apparent, but it stands alongside the universal relationship between parent and child, a theme evident in some of Hepworth’s most famous pieces, including ‘Mother and Child’ (1934) and ‘Pelagos’ (1946). 

‘Mother and Child’, as the title suggests, is dominated by the theme of parenthood. Constructed out of a single piece of alabaster, the sculpture depicts a reclining mother with a child positioned on her thighs. Whilst the two figures are portrayed as separate entities, Hepworth shows how they are intrinsically connected despite the smooth open spaces present throughout their shared form. It is easily one of the most complete and cathartic pieces of sculpture that I have seen.

‘Pelagos’ goes even more abstract, moving away from the human form altogether. The sculpture’s title translates to ‘sea’ in Greek and is inspired by the Cornish coastline. It creates a dynamic internal space through the use of strings, almost reminiscent of those on a guitar or violin. The piece itself curves beautifully, breaking open its own interior to create both a sense of stillness and dynamism embodying the relationship between tension and calm, reflective of the sea with its painted pale blue interior. 

It is easily one of the most complete and cathartic pieces of sculpture I have seen

A lot of Hepworth’s work is also characterised by the use of hollow spaces to inspire contemplation. This is very apparent in ‘Squares with Two Circles’ (1963), a late outdoor piece following her foray into metalwork in 1956. However, ‘Corinthos’ (1954), where Hepworth hollows out an internal space in wood, is perhaps the best example. Painting the interior of the piece white to emphasise this inner-realm, she also leaves chisel marks underneath this painted layer, adding an aged feel to the piece. Put simply, Hepworth uses the medium exceptionally, creating complex spiralling shapes out of a single piece of tropical hardwood. She invites the viewer to contend with their relationship to her sculpture, and the natural world more broadly.  

Unlike other abstract artists … Hepworth’s work is infused with emotion and human connection

“All my sculpture comes out of landscape” Hepworth wrote in 1943. The importance of seeing sculpture outside of a clinical art gallery setting was crucial for Hepworth, made clear by the location of the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Hepworth Wakefield Garden, in St Ives.

Today, Hepworth’s influence over modern art today remains undeniable. Her perception of the human form and the natural landscape has contributed to a profound dialogue on the role of abstract art. Unlike other abstract artists, Hepworth’s work is infused with emotion and human connection, making it difficult to tear your eyes away from it. As we celebrated what would have been her birthday the previous month, it is evident her legacy continues to this day.

Image: Alan Hitchcock via Flickr

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