Show Hide image

Ali Smith: Looking at the world through the eyes of Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth’s work and its universe of meaning.

Barbara Hepworth works on “Curved Form, Bryher II” (1961). Photo courtesy: Bowness, Hepworth Estate

It was a rainy sunny cloudy bright dark calm blustery day in May at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire and I was in a room full of forms between which I’d been ricocheting for an hour like a delighted pinball. “A Greater Freedom: Hepworth 1965-1975” displays pieces Barbara Hepworth made in the last decade of her life, full of the excitement of new technology and space exploration, lined all along one wall with her rarely shown Aegean Suite lithographs, startlingly vibrant sun, moon and planet abstracts like colourful constellations. It’s a room of works so dually modern and ancient-seeming that they make time irrelevant.

They were made when Hepworth was in her sixties and seventies and they are openly concerned with aesthetic and planetary genesis, the making of life and art out of matter. About them she said: “I don’t think anyone realises how much the last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth.” A small bronze maquette, Three Hemispheres (1967), sat next to a photo of the Goonhilly satellite dishes. It looked quite feasible that the designers of those dishes might’ve borrowed directly from Hepworth in the making. “It so happened that I was invited to go on board the first one when it began to go round, and it was so magical and strange,” Hepworth is quoted saying on a wall-card next to both.

Imagine her, in her seventies, aboard a satellite dish. Eleanor Clayton, the curator of the two new exhibitions at the Hepworth Wakefield, explained about the creamy-silvery breeze blocks on which the exhibits were mounted, a direct reference to the 1968 retrospective of Hepworth’s work at the Tate in London, where she chose the beautiful utilitarian bricks herself and also arranged for the gallery to place plant life next to the exhibits in an effort to democratise the gallery experience and make it more organic. But the bricks had been difficult to source and Hepworth had had to spend quite a lot of her own money – £43, to be exact – finding the right ones. Clayton, too, had quite a time half a century later finding bricks to match. It costs, to be utilitarian.

Up came the subject of Barbara Hepworth’s chances of being chosen in the campaign for putting a visual artist on the new £20 note. Ah, but which Hepworth? One of us wanted Hepworth from the 1953 film by Dudley Shaw Ashton, Figures in a Landscape, smoking and carving in a most elegant evening gown. One of us favoured the glamorous Hepworth, in a big fur coat. One of us chose her standing in her headscarf and work-jacket, dwarfed by one of her own gigantic bronzes, looking up at it as if it’s sprung fully formed out of her head just moments ago. One of us chose a passport photo of her as a very young adult, beautiful, full of potential, already recognisably the self she would become.

That youthful picture is on show for the first time in the other new exhibition here, “Hepworth in Yorkshire”, whose focus is her formative years and whose display of photos, early plasterwork, drawings and paintings gives an intimate insight into both the early life and the work of the girl who cried out, when her mother took her to see the Albert Memorial in London, oh how frightful!; the girl who, aged 15, made a relief of some cousins using plaster from her uncle’s GP practice; the girl who won a scholarship to the Art College in Leeds at the age of 16, then transferred a year later to the Royal College of Art in London along with fellow students including Henry Moore, the others five years older than she was; even in her seventies she was inclined to say, when they were compared, “I’m younger than Henry . . . more in touch with the young people.”

Then we talked about slogans that might help with that £20 note campaign.

Burn a hole in your pocket, one of us said.

I love an art gallery you can laugh out loud in, and those Hepworth holes, the piercings through artworks we’ve come to associate with her, have always been a source of delight to many people. They were to Hepworth, too. She made the first one in 1931 or thereabouts, through a thick and curvy amorphous stonework. The original is long lost but in the photos that survive it’s as if you’re literally witnessing a piece of stone shifting its bulk to reach for its form. She talked, over the decades, about the “intense pleasure” this act gave her, especially because of its abstract nature, “quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism”. It was the start of her interest in what she would later term the “underlying principle of abstract form in human beings”. She called that first holey piece Sculpture, renamed it Pierced Form – a work that, simply by existing, could reframe the world it inhabited, make it possible to see through form and simultaneously see differently via form.

Hepworth made her “Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) (6)” in 1943. Photo: Hepworth Estate

She is known for these holes, and for strings – at a certain point she began using strings over the hollows and holes of some of her abstract works, as if gesturing towards some mythical Orphean instrument, or conjuring a reminder of gut membrane. “The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind and the hills,” she wrote, both matter of fact and ­romantic. Henry Moore was dismissive, “a matter of ingenuity rather than a fundamental human experience”, he said of the stringing – as if ingenuity weren’t pretty fundamental to the human experience. “If every artist could truly, and with dedication, pull the string with which he was born – to the end – then a new concept could evolve,” Hepworth said in 1966, recalling her friendship with Piet Mondrian in a London full of cross-fertilisation between artists living and working together in the 1930s, London vibrant with pople who had left Europe in the rise of totalitarianism, all working in the face of the oncoming war. Those strings are somehow about such connecting, and also about stamina.

It is hard not to quote Hepworth’s own words about her art. She was an elegant articulator of her own and others’ work (keen in any case to represent herself: she usually took the official photographs of her work, and work by her second husband, Ben Nicholson, too, when they were together, for publicity and showing purposes; she happens also to have been a very good photographer). It’s going to get even harder soon not to quote her, since to coincide with the Wakefield shows and the big new Hepworth retrospective about to open at Tate Britain, the art historian Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s granddaughter and trustee of her estate, has edited the first full collection of her writing, including transcriptions of her film commentaries and interviews. Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations (Tate Publishing) is a witty and satisfying read.

“Your work is very organic,” an interviewer says to her in the 1970s. “It’s meant to be,” she replies. “I’m organic myself.” The book is full of small, brilliant revelations, such as her interest when she visited Brancusi’s studio in 1933 in how he used “great millstones” as the bases for his classical forms – maybe a source of her own penchant for breeze blocks? On a larger scale the collection prompts a rethink of any clichés to which we might have settled, over the years, about Hepworth and her work. “I think of landscape in a far broader sense,” says the artist it’s easy wholly to associate with the real landscapes of Yorkshire or St Ives; “I extend its meaning to include the whole universe.”

Art for her was a language with real consequence – “the only language”, she said in 1952, “which nations can speak together and they don’t quarrel. And yet in times of stress and war, the tiny grant which the state provides to maintain the visual arts is the first to go.” The book makes clear her deep political involvement. Hepworth, the opener-up of deep recesses in closed forms, writes to the Times in 1956 about the Hydrogen Bomb, “a subject which must occupy the deepest recesses of all our minds”. It is she who drafts the statement sent to the Sunday Times signed by 59 artists in 1961: “there can be no true culture while we make stock-piles of nuclear weapons”. She makes a handy “list of my convictions” to give to a visiting Daily Express journalist in 1961: pacifist, UN and nuclear disarmament supporter, anti capital punishment, a Labour Party member after Suez, an anti-pollution activist . . . “I’m surprised at myself,” says another interviewer, this time from the Yorkshire Post, arriving in St Ives in 1962 to lambaste her for defaulting to the southern warmth and, he imagines, a cliquey artists’ community. She talks to him seriously, shows him some works. He apologises, a bit amazed. “I’m usually quite a reactionary, you know.” And to Robert Hughes in 1966: “We had a silent spring here last year,” she says; “have you read Rachel Carson’s book?”

When one of her young triplets falls gravely ill, the child is encased in plaster at the local hospital, leading to Hepworth meeting a surgeon who suggests she come and watch some surgical teams opening people up for the better, fenestrating ears to cure deafness. The result, her ­unexpectedly naturalist Hospital Drawings series, is a celebration with a Renaissance dignity of the communal enterprise of the welfare state. “I can’t be unpolitically minded. I’m very involved . . . just as I was in the Thirties during the ­Spanish war . . . I was involved in industry in my home town. I was involved in the distress and the strikes . . . I wasn’t marching but I was involved through my work.” The words she tends towards, uses a lot: involvement, affirmation, unity, rhythm, balance. Balance is a matter of skill. “People always want to carve a nose before they can make a piece of stone stand up.” It’s also a matter of vital importance in the post-nuclear new world. “We must restore the balance . . . otherwise we will disintegrate.” She went about her work making connective and complementary relationships an integrative force, part of the rightful balance of things, like her sense that one of her hands (the right) was the “motor” in her carving, where the other was the thinking, feeling hand, could “hear” imperfections or flaws in the stone.

Wandering round the Hepworth Wakefield I am aware again of how her work, however monumental in scale, is the opposite of grand object, grand narrative. Even her grander objects are discursive, never about being singly monolithic. They’re always somehow informal, always asking something human about scale, meaning, symbol, dialogue – about what matters, and what matter is.

With Edna Ginesi (left) and Moore in Paris, 1920. Photo courtesy: Bowness, Hepworth Estate

“People don’t always realise there’s no fixed point for a sculpture, there’s no fixed point at which you can see it, there’s no fixed point of light in which you can experience it, because it’s ever-changing,” she said in 1968, at the time of that first retrospective. I managed to get admitted to Tate Britain to see the unpacking stages of the new retrospective in which, for the first time in nearly 50 years, we’ll see the whole thread of the life, from her earliest extant carvings to works from all over the world, some of which haven’t been seen in the city for decades – in some cases ever. Over 100 works will return Hepworth to London, connecting her international roots, her European influences and the often communal working process that freed up her originalities.

Penelope Curtis and Chris Stephens, the curators of the London show, told me that Hepworth’s take on exhibiting herself was often so far ahead of the game that it was misunderstood. Don’t put so many works in, the British Council said. She ignored them; she wanted that sense of coming and going, negotiability, the room full of jostling possibilities. “Wander round the garden alone,” she used to tell visitors to St Ives. Let the works “look at you and they’ll speak to you”. I was allowed to wander around the unpackings at the Tate for half an hour, pieces sitting on top of packing crates like instruments waiting to be played. I had a terrible urge to strum Pelagos (1946), I told Kate Moores, the media officer, as I left. She looked alarmed, in case I had. Then she told me how, when she first saw the film Figures in a Landscape, which will be showing in the retrospective, she’d felt blatant liberation over and above the plain old you-can’t-do-that fear at seeing the sculpture in the sea, waves washing through the holes in it.

Back in what will be the first room, a little unpacked dark-stone dual form, Mother and Child (1934), was all rightness and balance in a kind of inarticulable, flung-upward joyousness. Next to it, not yet set up properly, Large and Small Form (1934), a similar abstract mother-and-child work, was out on the tissue paper, two separate alabaster pieces beside each other. The tension between those pieces – just between two pieces of shaped stone lying there waiting to be placed together – was huge.

Over by the door was what will be one of the earliest exhibits, Hepworth’s earliest surviving carving, Doves (1927), gorgeous, curved and gentle, beaks tucked, a form that’s both singular and dual, even so early in her oeuvre, as if emerging from the hewn stone of the base as I watched. As I did, there is no other way to describe it: I was beside myself. And that was just the start.

“A Greater Freedom: Barbara Hepworth (1965-1975)” and “Hepworth in Yorkshire” are at the Hepworth Wakefield until spring 2016.

“Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World” opens at Tate Britain, London SW1 on 24 June

Ali Smith’s latest novel, “How To Be Both”, is the winner of the 2015 Baileys Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize 2015

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Show Hide image

How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror