BARBARA HEPWORTH was known to stalk around any new materials brought into the grounds of her studio. This was “to get know them and what they could be used for”, as she was of the generation of sculptors for whom truth to materials — the idea that the form of the artwork is contained within its material — was key.
The physicality and relationality of this approach carried over into
its viewing, as her sculptures encouraged movement around and through, together with touch, and, once she had begun piercing her materials, the act of looking through these pierced shapes. Such piercings enabled her to sculpt space as well as matter, and to direct viewers to look beyond the material.
Her impulses for first doing so in 1931 are not definitively known, but it is probable that a spiritual aspect was involved, given the commitment that she, together with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, had at this time to Christian Science. Later, in 1937, she suggested, in language taken from the teachings of Christian Science, that it is “a piercing of the superficial surfaces of material existence that gives a work of art its own life and purpose and significant power”.
Hepworth’s large bronze sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle), 1969, stands outside the Heong Gallery, and is on long-term loan to Downing College from the Hepworth Estate. It is a sculpture that invites viewers to get closer to it, as did Hepworth in its creation. She wanted viewers to be intimately involved with it to the extent of climbing through it. In this way, we can investigate the relationships between its parts and come to know its form and power.
Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, 2019. Photo Bob BerryBarbara Hepworth’s Winter Solstice, 1971 screenprint on paper (Hepworth Estate)
This exhibition brings together a selection of works made by Hepworth during the last two decades of her life, which complement and connect with aspects of Divided Circle, including its composition, presence, and associations. Semi-circles, circles, and holes abound in these works with both sun and moon serving as inspiration.
This period was also one in which she renewed her connections with Anglicanism, and in which the crucifixion featured as a source of inspiration. In an interview given in 1964, she spoke of a wish to “do an abstract crucifixion”. Then, in 1965 and 1966, she created the paintings Construction I and II, the armature of drawn lines from which was translated into her 1966-67 sculpture Construction (Crucifixion). A cast of this sculpture was controversially installed at Salisbury Cathedral by Hepworth’s friend and student, the Revd Professor Moelwyn Merchant.
The germ of this piece can be seen here through the inclusion of Construction I, in which the image of Christ on the cross also forms a figure in a landscape by which nature reaches upwards and outwards. The circle at the apex of the vertical is both the sun and the head of Christ echoing the multiplicity of orbs found throughout this exhibition.
A cross, in the form of one vertical line crossed by two horizontals, can also be found in Small Hieroglyph (1959), a beautiful circle in bronze set on a pebble-like base. Again, the materiality of this work and the physicality of our response was important to Hepworth, who described it as a “weighty bird in the hand”. A similar configuration of lines is also to be found on the immense Single Form created for the United Nations as a memorial to Dag Hammarskjöld and made to the glory of God. In an essay for The Christian Science Monitor in 1965, Hepworth wrote: “A sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit.”
The works in this exhibition demonstrate Hepworth’s intuitive and spiritual understandings of form and energy. Form is inherent in the material and needs to be discerned by the artist to be realised. This concept of truth to materials is a spiritual search for the inscape (the term coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins) or essence of objects and artefacts as originally created by God. Energy is found in ideas, the imaginative concept that gives life and vitality to the material; and this vitality is its spiritual inner life, force and energy.
Barbara Hepworth © Bowness, 2019Barbara Hepworth’s Construction I, 1965, in oil and pencil on gesso-prepared board; from the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art
Hepworth described the task of the artist in religious terms, saying that an artistic sensibility revealed a “vision of a world that could be possible . . . inclusive of all vitality and serenity, harmony and dynamic movement”. Artists passionately affirm and reaffirm and demonstrate in their plastic medium “faith that this world of ideas does exist”.
Hepworth’s own achievement was to retain the materiality of human scale in works that call out to be looked through, touched, felt, and circumnavigated, while also creating with incisions and piercings that direct our attention to what is beyond and out of reach.
”Barbara Hepworth: Divided Circle” is at The Heong Gallery, Downing College, Cambridge, until 2 February. Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. www.dow.cam.ac.uk/cultural-life/heong-gallery