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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

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Alan Bennett: “I hope I’m not being too old-gittish”

At 82, Alan Bennett has lost none of his wit or compassion – nor his anger at the “nastification” of Britain.

“The blond one will have to go,” declared the impresario Donald Albery in 1961, as he considered bringing Beyond the Fringe to the West End. Yet Alan Bennett, looking very much like the clergyman he once intended to be, did not go. In the half-century since, he has proved himself to be the most enduring of the four wits behind the comedy revue. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore died young: the former from alcoholism, the latter from progressive supranuclear palsy. Jonathan Miller, the great polymath, lives on in the revivals of his many theatrical productions but seems to have retreated into retirement.

Now 82 and still somehow boyish, Bennett is easily recognisable from his early photos, as he and his Oxbridge chums found fame in the revue that brought satire to the masses. He is a little slower and stiffer than he was the last time we met, and a touch deaf – Keeping On Keeping On, his new collection of diaries and writings, regales the reader with the inevitable mishearings. He has survived cancer and a stomach aneurysm and has had a couple of joints replaced, but his life seems to proceed largely unimpeded.

“You can’t sort out the symptoms of anything going round from the symptoms of just getting older,” he tells me. “I still go on my bike, because it’s easier to ride than it is to walk, and I try to do half an hour each day. There’s a niggardly bit in Regent’s Park that they allow people to cycle down . . . The canal I always find rather scary, because the rules of the road don’t seem to apply and other cyclists come along at such a rate.”

We are chatting in the lime-washed front room of the Victorian terrace house in Primrose Hill that has been his home for almost a decade, shared with his partner of 24 years, Rupert Thomas, the editor of the World of Interiors. Bennett tells me that the recent Paddington adaptation was filmed in one of the flashier, colourful houses opposite. The walls and shelves bear witness to the couple’s travels and interests – many of the paintings were bought by Thomas – and the effect is low-key and lived-in. Bennett is settled in a Carver chair by the window, beneath a portrait that looks like it’s of Thomas but isn’t. (“He wouldn’t be flattered!”)

This patch of NW1 has long been Bennett’s stamping ground. In the 1980s he lived on the same street as Miller, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn and Mary-Kay Wilmers (Bennett’s editor at the London Review of Books). It’s a literary cohort captured with comic detail by Nina Stibbe, who was then Wilmers’s nanny, in her collection of letters, Love, Nina. “She’s funny, is Nina,” Bennett concedes, “but the character in the book bears no relation to me as far as I can see, and I didn’t think he was very funny, either. The notion that I could mend a fridge is absurd. I think she just wished that on to me to make me more interesting as a character, which I understand because I’ve done the same thing myself.” He didn’t recognise himself in the TV dramatisation but, he says, “Mary-Kay was happy because she was played by Helena Bonham Carter, so she found that rather flattering.”

Bennett is as active as ever, writing new plays and having older ones transferred to the big screen, most recently last year’s The Lady in the Van – the third film of his work (after The Madness of King George and The History Boys) to be directed by Nicholas Hytner, whom he met while adapting The Wind in the Willows for the stage in 1989. He doesn’t regard himself as a particularly speedy writer but: “Gradually, it gets done. Nick Hytner, at the end of the talk we did at the National [Theatre in London] about The Habit of Art, said the plays were normally four years apart. He felt that was a bit long, and if the audience felt that, too, would they applaud? It was like applauding Tinker Bell in Peter Pan!” He did speed up a little: it was only three years before he was able to pop his next script through Hytner’s letter box. The extent of his work is impressive – more than a score of stage plays and a dozen films, not to mention TV, radio and books. He giggles: “It’s appalling, isn’t it!”

Born in Armley, Leeds, to Lilian and Walter, a butcher, Bennett learned Russian during his national service and then read history at Oxford. He began and then aborted a PhD in medieval history, supporting himself with teaching, at which he insists he was “very bad”. He joined the Oxford Revue, out of which Beyond the Fringe grew, and its success in Edinburgh, in the West End and on Broadway (where President Kennedy attended) changed the course of his life. His first stage play, Forty Years On (1968), was followed by acclaimed plays and television dramas and a series of poignant Talking Heads monologues in 1988. Since 1994, three bestselling volumes of memoirs and diaries, often first published in the London Review of Books, have raised the curtain on the Yorkshire boyhood that has shaped so much of his work.

In 2008, Bennett donated his papers to the Bodleian Library in Oxford – all the diaries, letters and multifarious drafts of his plays. “I can’t believe that minute changes are of interest to anyone at all . . . They made out I was doing them a favour but it was the other way round, really – they were taking them off my hands.” Bennett doesn’t approve of selling archives unless a writer needs the money. “The British Library trumpets the manuscripts it’s bought for such and such, implying it’s philanthropy on the part of the writers – and it isn’t at all.”

To read Keeping On Keeping On is to be in the company of an old friend, one who defies the maxim that we get more right-wing as we get older. At the core of both the man and his work – whether he is writing about the Queen or Mary Shepherd, the homeless woman who lived in a van parked on his driveway – are warmth and humanity. Although there may be something teddy-bearish about Bennett, he is never cosy: almost all of his work is quietly unsettling, raising uncomfortable questions about ourselves and about society.

Bennett is moral in the best sense of the word, preoccupied always with unfairness and injustice and thus perplexed by what Daily Mail readers find in his work. “Papers full of Charles Kennedy being, or having been, an alcoholic,” he wrote in his diaries on 6 January 2006, observing that Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith weren’t ­exactly teetotal. “Less perilous, I would have thought, to have a leader intoxicated with whisky than one like Blair, intoxicated with himself.” Later that year, the news that the policeman who shot Jean Charles de Menezes was still in his post made him “ashamed to be English”.

An admirer of Gordon Brown, Bennett told me in 2008 that if David Cameron were elected, it would be “government by estate agent”. Things turned out worse than expected, and his discomfiture and anger are palpable throughout the diaries. “I blame it all on Mrs Thatcher,” he tells me several times during our conversation, regretting the end of consensus politics.

That the Liberal Democrats went into coalition was incomprehensible to him from the outset. “The Tories are not to be trusted. You knew they would just take advantage. When it was plain we weren’t going to get proportional representation, which might have saved the day, that was really the end of it . . . You look back and you think Macmillan was a liberal prime minister. He was prime minister of the whole country, despite the fact that he was aristocratic. [Thatcher] bequeathed the fact that they just govern in favour of a class.” While Blair was “hard to forgive”, Cameron was “contemptible”. As for Theresa May: “We’ll see.”

Shopping in Camden Town on the morning after Cameron’s 2015 victory, he felt a sense of “bereavement in the streets”. He wanted a Labour government so he could “stop thinking about politics, knowing that the nation’s affairs were in the hands of a party which, even if it was often foolish, was at least well intentioned”.

Were he a party member, he wrote last year, he would have voted for Jeremy Corbyn, “if only out of hope that the better part of salvation lies not in electoral calculation but in the aspirations of the people”. When I ask whether he would have done so this year, however, he equivocates. “I can’t say that, no. Let’s see how things turn out.”

Bennett was surprised by the Brexit vote, “but then so was everybody else. Little England – I hate the notion. The sense of helplessness is new. It seems there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m afraid my reaction is that I shan’t be here much longer.”

Education is the issue about which he is most passionate. That students are “saddled with these enormous debts is just monstrous”, he tells me. “I feel it’s a mockery.” It is, he believes, “the mark of a civilised society that you do not think: who’s going to pay for my education? Mine was paid either by Leeds City Council or by the state, so it didn’t cost my parents a penny from start to finish.”

Leeds Modern School, which Bennett attended from 1945, was “a grammar school, though I always thought of it as just a state school. The grammar was Leeds Grammar School, a really snobbish place, and still is.” He went to Oxford after winning a Senior City scholarship. Had he been required to take out a loan, he would not have gone to university. It is “a standing rebuke” that Scotland still provides free education. When he gained the Freedom of the City of Leeds in May 2006, he said in his acceptance speech, “I feel I was given the freedom of this city more than 50 years ago . . . I was given an education for life and a freedom for life that education gives you.”

“The other thing I’m old-fashioned about is public schools,” says Bennett, who believes that their charitable status should go (“Blair could have done it easily, with the majority he had”) and that public and state schools should be amalgamated at sixth-form level – which would immediately dispense with the “need” for grammar schools. “It wouldn’t be an enormous social up­heaval and, once you’ve merged them at one level, the others would gradually follow.”

The iniquities of private education were the subject of “Fair Play”, a sermon that Bennett delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, in 2014. “I can understand the Etonians saying they refuse to feel guilty about it, but it’s a waste, that’s what’s wrong with it,” he says. “People are wasted. They don’t reach their full capacities. And not to reach your full capacities because your parents are in the wrong position is dreadful.”

In the King’s College sermon, he suggested that if something isn’t fair, “then maybe it’s not Christian, either”. So is it possible to be Conservative and Christian? “If I said no, the shit would really hit the fan!” he answers, giggling. “I don’t know. I’m not competent to say that.”

Devoutly religious as a teenager, Bennett wrote in 1988 that he had “never managed to outgrow” his religious upbringing, and the diaries are full of references to hymns, readings, religious paintings and churches, about which he is knowledgeable “in a slapdash way”. With Thomas, he likes to visit “tiny churches in the middle of nowhere” – buildings that haven’t been “knocked about” by the Victorians.

There is a sense in which Bennett is an Everyman, quietly advocating for the confused, accused and misused and railing against the “nastification” of Britain. Compassion is evident everywhere in his plays and in his life, although typically he denies that offering Mary Shepherd of The Lady in a Van refuge on his driveway was altruism (she was less of a distraction there than when she was parked on the street, under constant attack from unkindly passers-by).

The diaries reflect his quiet fury at various ways in which standards have slipped. Abu Hamza’s opinions, he argues, are “reprehensible . . . But he is a British citizen and he should not be extradited to the United States.” Watching the Trooping the Colour ceremony, he notes that there are “no grieving mothers, of course, and the deaths that have been mentioned are all noble ones and not due to inadequate equipment”. Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms leave him aghast.

He writes of “ideology masquerading as pragmatism”, as shown in the fate of the East Coast Main Line, which was sold back into private ownership despite turning a profit while publicly owned. Bennett is a frequent passenger and, he tells me, “The people on it, who tend not to change and are funny and eccentric, are its saving grace.”

The BBC, which has been the outlet for so much of Bennett’s work, is similarly short-termist in the way it operates. “It’s to do with the way the whole thing is financed,” he says: another black mark against Thatcher for the damage that she did to the corporation’s management and principles. He is irritated by “the form of the programmes now, where someone is sent home at the end and they’re lined up and told which one it is”. He occasionally watches The Great British Bake Off but The Big Allotment Challenge was a particular affront: “Allotments are co-operative enterprises, not competitive, except for marrows. That business of saying someone’s not as good as someone else – I just hate it.” He and Rupert watch the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory “to fill a gap. The rest is . . .” He trails off. “We don’t watch Scandinavian crime. Too gloomy.”

Bennett is wary of becoming a codger and feels that he should shut up. “I hope I’m saved from the worst of it by Rupert, who’s thirty years younger than I am. He pulls me up if I’m too old-gittish.”

“Keeping On Keeping On” by Alan Bennett is published by Profile Books and Faber & Faber

Liz Thomson edited, with Patrick Humphries, the revised and updated edition of Robert Shelton’s “No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan”

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood