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DECEPTIVELY EFFORTLESS: BARBARA HEPWORTH AT TATE BRITAIN

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London has endless museums, galleries, gigs, festivals and events. It’s hard to recall its understated gems with the constant barrage of new places to go demanding your attention. So it was with fairly muted expectations I walked into a quiet Tate Britain on a ferociously hot day last week to see the new Barbara Hepworth exhibition.  And I walked out utterly inspired; wanting to get a giant piece of wood and carve it up right then and there, such was the power of her artistic vision and the deceptively effortless forms she created. 

Hepworth is one of Britain’s preeminent and most productive sculptors (she produced over 600 sculptures, not to mention her work in other media) and her later pieces are certainly of a size to sit with confidence in Tate Modern’s imposing Turbine Hall. But it felt appropriate to have her work displayed at Tate Britain: the smaller, more intimate, spaces suited to a thoughtful exploration of her career.

Each room was a chronological study in decades from the 1920s through to her accidental death in the 1970s. The first room – her most figurative including torsos, animals and masks - put her work in amongst her contemporaries including Epstein and Moore. Even at this early point the clarity of her form is notable.

A second room showed the creative personal and professional relationship between Hepworth and her second husband, Ben Nicholson, father to their triplets.  The next room from the later 1930s demonstrates her move towards more purely abstract sculpture and her role in the international abstract art movement. Her feminine style is in stark contrast to the geometric spikiness of Giacometti and Mondrian, whose work it is displayed alongside.

It reminded you of just how groundbreaking her work was a woman artist – and a mother of four children to boot – in managing to practically articulate her vision and the determination to do so on every level.  There were no precision tools, no laser guided cutting. Footage of her shows her fully made up, fag on the go, hair just so, wielding a massive hammer and chisel against huge pieces of stone. The juxtaposition was surprising, yet somehow understandable: sinuous, natural shapes coaxed from unyielding materials.

This clarity, this elegance of organic form is utterly timeless. Her pieces could be from today or a thousand years ago. Despite this, sculpture is still a bit of a mystery, it’s the only thing we never try in art college; it’s taking the most elemental of materials and refining it to the highest possible level.  It’s almost the anti-digital, there is a sense of permanence to her larger works that makes you think of Stonehenge, they could be there forever.

We, on the other hand, work in the world of brands, which is constantly moving. How on earth can we take creative inspiration to bring elements of that timeless quality to our work, which 99% of the time is thrown away after it’s used?

The possible answer? Hepworth’s own words of guidance:

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, it is first one we have when we’re born. I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with a sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.

It’s not just about the design in the abstract; it’s about the experience that the person has while using it. It’s an interplay between the designer and the consumer. It means creating objects which are an absolute pleasure to look at, touch and explore in every setting and making it look effortless in the process. A hell of an ambition for sure, but #beautifulthinking to aspire to.

 

Further reading:

Open Eye 25 : The Personalisation Issue

Illustriously Creative : Sir John Hegarty