Barbara Hepworth was a pioneering British modernist sculptor interested carving simple organic forms in marble, stone, and wood. She also made bronzes, drawings, and lithographic prints. Hepworth, with her friends, helped introduce a radical continental aesthetic to a conservative island nation.Read More
Educated at Wakefield Girls High School, Hepworth won a scholarship to go to Leeds School of Art in 1920. There she met Henry Moore, who became a life-long friend and affectionate rival. In 1921, they went to London to study at the Royal College of Art for four years, making the occasional study trip to Paris.
In 1924, she was awarded a West Riding Scholarship for a year's travel and went to Italy to study Romanesque and early Renaissance art, nurturing her classical sensibility. In Florence, she married fellow artist, John Skeaping, and in Rome she learned to carve marble from Giovanni Ardini.
When Skeaping became ill, he and Hepworth returned to London in 1926. In 1931, she met the painter and chair of the experimental Seven and Five society, Ben Nicholson, and they became romantically involved. She separated from Skeaping in 1931 and married Nicholson in 1938.
Nicholson was passionate about abstraction, but like Hepworth, curious about Surrealism, so they went to Paris in 1933, visiting the studios of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp. Back in London, they co-founded the Unit One art movement, which aimed at uniting the two genres. In 1934, Hepworth had triplets, but managed to continue her practice as well as raise children.
In 1935, she and Nicholson met Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, and Naum Gabo. Some of her works began to show the influence of the School of Paris, such as the Brancusi-like Two Segments and Sphere (1935—1936), in marble.
In 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson moved to the Cornish fishing village of St. Ives where they attracted other painters and sculptors, as well as some overseas artists like Gabo. It became a very highly regarded and popular art centre, for a time second only to London.
Due to the war, and one studio being destroyed by bombs, Hepworth and Nicholson moved to Carbis Bay at the end of 1939, where there was a studio and garden. In 1947, Hepworth began a series of drawings of surgeons operating in hospitals. She saw multiple connections between artists and hospital staff: 'There is, it seems to me, a close affinity between the work and approach of both physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors.'
Curiously at this time, her work became less figurative and more consistently abstract, influenced by Brancusi, Gabo, and Arp, as well as landscape forms. Putting holes in many of these carvings opened up internal spaces and curved convex or concave planes. Examples include Pelagos (1946), Monolith (Empyrean) (1953), and Pierced Form (Epidauros) (1960).
Hepworth and Nicholson separated in 1951. That year she began to work in bronze, casting carved plaster to make moulds. Bronze made outdoor works possible. Examples include The Family of Man (1970), Sphere with Inner Form (1963), and Single Form (Memorial) (1961—1962).
Hepworth died in a studio fire in Cornwall in 1975.
The carved dark-stained wooden work, Kneeling Figure (1932), is a good example of Hepworth's early interest in traditional subject matter, made before she visited modernist artist studios in Paris the following year and started to explore abstraction. Mother and Child (1934) blends mottled human forms with bone and landscape qualities, avoiding detail. Three decades on, Oval Form with Strings and Colour (1966), with its incorporation of stretched string, references Gabo, while its smooth elm egg shape alludes to Brancusi. The 21-foot-high commissioned United Nations bronze, Single Form (1961—1964), shows how adventurous Hepworth could be with scale, when much of her other work was intimate.
Even though Hepworth was the subject of a major retrospective organised by the Whitechapel Gallery in 1954, she found it difficult to secure stable gallery representation overseas. Hepworth was not good at promoting herself. However, once more and more national institutions started to show interest, further touring shows visiting different countries eventuated; these included her exhibition in the 5th São Paulo Bienal—it travelled to Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Caracas between 1959 and 1960—and the much later 2015—2016 Tate survey, which went to the Netherlands and Germany.
At home, important institutional surveys include Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, Tate Britain (2015); Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Liverpool (1994); Barbara Hepworth, The Tate Gallery, London (1968); and Barbara Hepworth: Retrospective Exhibition of Carvings and Drawings from 1927—1954, Whitechapel Gallery, London (1954).
Influential group exhibitions include Modern Sculpture from the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Collection, Guggenheim Museum, New York (1962); 25th Venice Biennale, Venice (1950); and Unit One, Mayor Gallery, London (1934).
The main collections of Hepworth sculptures, drawings, and lithographs are found at Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St. Ives and The Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire.
On Ocula, the artist is represented by Pace Gallery.
Barbara Hepworth's website can be found here.
John Hurrell | Ocula | 2021
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