Friday, 27 November 2015


(You guessed it, another art exhibition reviewed after its over)

Among the Carvers

If you bothered to read the critics, you'll know this show was given a poor press. Some of that thunder can be dismissed as simple art snobbery. Hepworth, as we’ll see, progressed from high-minded Modernism to the best form of populism. In other words, she let the rabble in. Jonathan Jones’ review falls into that category, even if he shies from saying so outright. (But then he's... oh,just see for yourself. It's not a parody. It just reads like one.)

But the most common diss is to claim a disservice is being done to her. Which suggests the real target is curator and now outgoing Tate Director Penelope Curtis. Who, true enough, at times staged some high-concept and quite spectacularly ill-advised shows. And this is but one example of her preference for sculpture, which seems to have have irked those who don’t share it. Yet she was also Director, for example, for the highly successful British Folk Art show. The real reason for the knives is almost certainly down to some London arts scene version of office politics, which the rest of us can safely disregard. Nevertheless, just for once let's take the critics as a starting point.

For, while not necessarily co-ordinated, the attacks take on a remarkably similar form. Laura Cumming indulges in one of the typical laments: “her works are heavily alarmed or locked away in glass cases so that you can’t touch them, as Hepworth strongly urged… [while] the more austere her work, the more sterile it looks in the subterranean galleries at Tate Britain. The groupings of pristine abstract forms… look especially stark and unnatural in the artificial lighting.” And this from critics who said not a word when Joseph Cornell's interactive assemblages were kept behind glass!

Beneath those vitrines the first room shows the 'direct carving' movement of the Tens and Twenties. Practitioners included Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein, Henri Gauider-Brezeska and Hepworth's first husband John Skeaping. Which is fine company. Certainly its enough to get the critics fulminating. Alistair Sooke writes in the Telegraph: “By (rightly) making the point that Hepworth and Moore weren’t the only artists innovating during this period... the show reconsiders her early contribution as less pioneering, and more in keeping with a trend. At a stroke, her artistic courage is undermined.”

Sorry, what? It's acknowledged that this was a movement, but we shouldn't be allowed to say so? You can of course stuff any artist with pioneering courage by disregarding their context or their contemporaries. Picasso would have sole credit for Cubism if we eliminate Braque, Dali for Surrealism if you drop Ernst and so on. But the point is we can talk about Braque and still see Picasso as an important artist. Sooke is in essence suggesting Hepworth's artistic reputation can only be maintained by denial. In short, he's the one doing the undermining, even if its cloaked by gallantry. Besides which, artists developing through movements, through reflecting current circumstances and influencing one another, even if its not always formalised or made up into a manifesto... this is news to some people?

Analogously, in the vidclip below, Sooke praises the show for minimising the comparisons between Hepworth and Henry Moore. Yet, both Yorkshire born, they met young at the Leeds School of Art and, to quote Wikipedia, “established a friendly rivalry that lasted professionally for many years”.

Let's move on to the thing itself. Sculpture, and direct carving in particular, was then seen as “lower in status” than painting, as more of a craft rather than an art. ('Art sculptors' often worked only on the maquette, or template model, leaving the creation of the actual sculpture to assistants.) And much of this movement seems to be about a contrary luxuriating in the low status, in being an artist willing to get your fingers dirty.

But the desire to get your hands on the materials also shows an interest in the materials themselves. They're not considered incidental to the subject, like the proverbial blank canvas, but inexorably tied up with it. Notably the subjects are often animals, and the titles simply descriptive. The human subjects are often similarly impassive, defined by what they are doing – see for example Hepworth's 'Musician' (1929/30, below). Things are simply what they are. As the show says, there is often some of the “hieratic and stately” quality of ancient Egyptian and Mexican carvings.

The wide variety of materials on display suggest an interest in different forms of wood and stone, as if they were your real subject. Hepworth herself said at the time "carving to me is more interesting than modelling, because there is an unlimited variety of materials from which to draw inspiration. Each material demands a particular treatment and there are an infinite number of subjects in life each to be re-created in a particular material. In fact, it would be possible to carve the same subject in a different stone each time, throughout life, without a repetition of form.”

The show talks of her “allowing the natural form of the wood to shine through her carving”. And indeed, in a work like 'Torso' (1932, below) the base of the sculpture remains a rough wood block. But there's also a paradox where the material cannot be too dominant. The two have to blend together. Whereas the patterned lapiz-lazuli of Skeaping's' Buffalo' (1930) becomes obtrusive and distracting.

As might be suggested by the method, the success of the art often comes from reduction – from chiselling away until you're left with the essence of a thing. Epstein's' Doves' (1914/15) are sweeping blocks of stone with the merest hint of dove about them, an assured triumph. While Skeaping's 'Fish' (1929/30) gives his subject an almost cartoony circle for an eye. (And keep that eye in mind.)

Nevertheless, there is something of a Year Zero approach to direct carving. As ever, you go back to basics when you feel you've taken a wrong turn. And once you've realigned yourself, you head off again in a fresh direction. The musical comparison might be the blues boom of Sixties Britain, which allowed bands to head off into psychedelia, hard rock and other frontiers.

Conjoined With Nicholson

Next up is Nicholson. By '31 Hepworth had separated from Skeaping and was sharing both her studio and life with Ben Nicholson. At which point you might start to wonder if the more feminist-minded critics start to have a point. Victoria Sadler, for example, complains “the effect is to undermine Barbara completely by defining her by who she was in a relationship with rather than on her own terms”.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but actually the answer is no. In fact, if paradoxically, this focus on her husbands is arguably too kind to Hepworth. It takes the emphasis away from Naum Gabo, which was using both stringed and pierced forms before her. (This fixation with linear innovation within Modernism always seems to me to be something of a trap. Yet it is the language these retrospectives often deal in, with the neat chronologies they throw up on the walls.)

But most important was Nicholson's take on Modernism. It then often felt like a continental import to Britain; like olives or camembert cheese, a product which simply didn't grow here. So British Modernism tended to be merely imitative of continental innovations. Whereas, to again quote Wikipedia, Nicholson's “gift... was the ability to incorporate… European trends into a new style that was recognizably his own.”

Tate Brit's previous ’Picasso and Modern British Art’ was anchored to one of Penelope Curtis' more hopeless conceits, and for the most part to get anything out of it you needed to blinker the intended through-line from your sight. But Nicholson was one of the few British artists able to ingest Picasso without becoming a mere disciple, and so emerge from it unscathed. Works such as 'Au Chat Botte' (1932) display a Horlicks-drinking, raincoat-wearing English take on Modernism – almost numinously drab. And, not unassociatedly, Wikipedia also mentions “he believed that abstract art should be enjoyed by the general public”, rather than be uber-fashionable continental chic for elite metropolitans. (As with the fish eye, watch out for that one.)

Plus, unlike Skeaping Nicholson was not a sculptor but a painter – making it unlikely Hepworth would simply absorb his influence directly. Hepworth herself said of their relationship "as painter and sculptor each was the other's best critic." A comment perhaps embodied by her 'Two Heads' (1932, above). While Moore was ceaselessly carving Mother and Child figures, Hepworth fuses together two adults. Its hard not to see the figures as Nicholson and herself. Similar profiles of the male head seem to have been recurring figures for Nicholson. While the incised, cartoony eye recalls the round fish eye of earlier. And, while the male head does dominate, its presented as a joining of minds as much as bodies.

 The Limits of Abstraction

As the Thirties progressed, Modernism came more and more to have its head. And it decided that head was square. Or pure oval. Possibly triangular. Certainly anything but head-shaped. The show does describe the appeal of this tendency to 'pure form' very well, as “an idealist belief in the universal language of abstraction as the appropriate response to the rise of a right-wing totalitarianism in Europe”. In short, Esperanto for the eyes. And the rise of fascism threw up opportunity alongside motive, as continental artists increasingly needed to flee persecution. They'd figuratively, and sometimes literally, turn up on Hepworth and Nicholson's doorstep.

The problem is that aesthetically this was an ill wind which almost beached Modernism. Nicholson, by the time of his white-on-white reliefs, is a good example of an artist who had painted himself into the corner of pure form and lost everything that was once interesting about him.

But the ill wind swayed Hepworth herself. 'Three Forms' (1935, above) is an example of a less effective, less resonant work of art which at least we get to blame on the Nazis. If the direct carving works seemed merely formative, merely the start of something, 'Three Forms' seems its end. I confess I'd like to draw three cartoony faces on it in the manner of 'Two Heads'. In a sadder universe Hepworth might well have ended down that cul-de-sac, with only perfect spheres for company.

”The Sea Is Never Far”

Happily for our world, she not only sprang back but into her mature phase. Reports seem to vary as to when she moved to the town with which she’s most associated – St. Ives on the Cornish coast. Wikipedia suggests either 1939 or 1949, while her dedicated website weighs in on the second. Perhaps she settled there gradually. Whichever, it was Hepworth the St. Ives artist who endured over the abstract internationalist. And this seems the place where her mature phase as an artist begins. Earlier on, it is likely this show lied not and she was merely one among many, perhaps even a disciple to Epstein and others. No longer.

The sea might seem the least sculptural subject of all. Imagine the pointlessness of a bronze of rolling waves. Yet Hepworth used this to her advantage. The BFI film 'Figures in a Landscape', shown as part of the exhibition has a fruity voice-over by Cecil Day-Lewis which frequently tips over into self-parody. But when he says “the sea is never far, it shapes the rocks, hollowing those caves” he makes a valid point - the sea itself acts as a sculptor. And more important still, she sought to capture the sea without slavishly duplicating its surface features. And a feature of this work is the way it never quite resolves into either abstract form or naturalism – its, to coin a phrase, 'just abstract enough'.

It often reminds us of the way nature can give us geometry, in its stones and seashells. The trademark holes in her work she called “caves” and “hollows”. The bold colours of a work like 'Sculpture in Colour (Deep Blue and Red)' (1940, above), recall the way an exposed interior of a stone or piece of wood can be be a strikingly brighter colour, before the sun wears it down. (She said herself “except in two instances I have always used colour with concave forms. When applied to convex forms I have felt that the colour appeared to be 'applied' instead of becoming inherent in the formal idea. I have been very influenced by the natural colour and luminosity in stones and woods.”) Even her radiating spoke strings, perhaps the least naturalistic element of her work, still suggest the ribbing patterns on seashells.

And perhaps she was almost poised for this. The cartoony features of earlier never return. But they always acted as a cross between a counter-weight and an anchor rope – pulling her art back from toppling irrevocably into the neat geometry of pure form.

And more than we notice any of this we sense it, so we don't react to these works as something abstract, austere or removed from our lives. Yet its just as important that these suggestions never become more than that. We find we can relate to the work without ascribing a fixed meaning to it. 'Pelagos' (1946, above) is described by the Tate's website as potentially resembling “a shell, a wave or the roll of a hill”. When Hepworth spoke of it resembling “the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills” the important word is “tension”.

Let's do the very thing Alistair Sooke told us not to, and compare Hepworth with Henry Moore. Rather than diminishing her or making her his understudy, this brings out everything that's singular about her. As is well known, both Moore and Hepworth disliked galleries and preferred their work to be shown in situ. But from that point, they may well differ. As said over his own exhibition, Moore's work has an autocthonian dimension. While Hepworth's muse may well have been the sea. To this day Moore has a sculpture park set in the Yorkshire countryside, and Hepworth on the Cornish coast. As Herbert Read said in 'Modern Sculpture' “She has gone directly to nature, to crystals and shells, to rocks and the form-weaving sea”.

Further, while there are some reclining figures, mostly early on in this show, there's nothing to Moore's degree. Its like two painters, one working in landscape and the other portrait. (Or at least square format.) And Hepworth uses this to group her figures. Of course all artists benefit from having their work accumulated, that's why everyone wants a solo exhibition as soon as they can get one. To get an idea what an artist is doing, you need some dots to connect. But there's something more with Hepworth. Her works don't accumulate so much as gang together.

There are sometimes several forms on one base as in 'Group (Concourse)' (1951, above), like semi-abstraction's answer to a crowd scene. The mere act of placing forms together is almost enough to make them more figurative. Try imagining one of the forms in 'Forms in Echelon' (1938, also above) taken in isolation, and the effect would be quite different. As the show says “she liked to display her sculptures as if in conversation with each other, so that they become more of a group than an example of individual figures”. And this changed relationship between them changes their relation to us. They don't belong on some high Olympian plinth, but set in surroundings. They need to have a place in the world.

For all that Moore was willing to plasticate or even break apart the human form, Hepworth had a greater tendency to abstraction. This could be down to the way the 'pure' human form is assumed to be male. Give it any female attributes and in the popular imagination it becomes 'womankind' rather than 'humankind'. For example Moore's 'Family Group' (1949), part of Tate Britain's permanent display, identifies the mother primarily by her skirt and longer hair, and the father simply by the absence of these. Formally speaking, they're not that different to the identifying figures we find on loo doors. There is admittedly no firm evidence for this theory, and it may merely be projecting more contemporary thoughts back in time. But for Hepworth semi-abstraction might have been a route out of a man's world.

Art For A Modern World, A Modern World For Art

Ironically the two great post-war British sculptors are also known for each creating an important set of drawings. You could perhaps play compare and contrast endlessly between Hepworth’s Hospital and Moore’s Shelter series. For example, both are built up through shading and contour lines. Yet Moore's wartime shelter drawings looked back to the underworld of Greek mythology, it's faceless figures shades. Whereas in 'Concentration of Hands II' (1948, above) the surgeons are masked but in the way a superhero might be masked, so they can stand for a concept. The composition means the picture's emphasis falls not on their faces but their working hands, the masks just de-emphasises them further.

But this time the differences aren’t so much the differences between the two artists. Though separated by only five or six years, everything had changed in the meantime - they effectively belong to different eras. The NHS was bright and newly born when Hepworth drew it. As the Doctors work on the human body, so does post-war politics on the body politic and the sculptor on her block. (A comparison made directly in some of the other drawings, such as 'Fenestration of the Ear', 1948). Like the NHS, Hepworth sees art as playing a public role.

In these days of blockbuster shows and Tate expansionism its difficult to reconstruct just how much Modernism was initially shunned by a distrustful British public. Taking up internationalism meant quite literally to abandon nationalism – to turn against any possibility of a sizeable domestic audience. And yet, both Moore and Hepworth broke this bind to become popular artists. The show presents Hepworth as quite single-minded in her career, careful in how both her work and her own image were presented. (For example arranging her studio to be more photogenic. Film of her also excluded her assistants, fitting the 'single-handed genius' notion many then had of artists.) But while she might have helped herself along, that hardly seems the whole story.

Neither did Hepworth or Moore blunt their edge out of careerism. Firstly while their work can be talked about it doesn’t require explaining in the way, say, Cubism might. And people generally sense that it’s okay to look at a piece and simply say whether they like it or not. The public has a way in. But further, in a rare case of the ‘avant garde’ actually behaving the way its supposed to, it would be truer to say Britain finally caught up with them. There was a widespread post-war feeling that merely defeating fascism wasn’t enough - people didn’t want to go back to the way things were. Benevolent public institutions seemed our antidote to the ego of wartime dictators. This was to be the era of the Common Man.

So, living in a newly invented world, they needed a newly invented art to go with it. And alongside this reimagined nation, the internationalism of the Abstract Modernism era returns – only in a more optimistic, less defensive way. Hepworth submitting designs for the rebuilt Waterloo bridge and exhibiting in the 1951 Festival of Britain, celebrating post-war reconstruction, must be seen in this context. As Fiona McCarthy says, she was “eager to take an active part in Britain's postwar reconstruction - by making public sculpture for new schools, for civic centres, taking art out of the studio.”

The show displays 'The Quarrel With Realism', Le Corbusier's article from 1941 from the magazine 'Circle'. (Co-edited by Nicholson and with Hepworth was heavily involved.) “What will become of painting and sculpture? It would seem that these two major arts should accompany architecture. There is room for them there.” While Hepworth herself said in 1946 “one of the functions of sculpture is to fulfil the demands and conditions of a given site. Present conditions restrict this idea so that the sculptor works mainly in his studio and eventually, if he is fortunate, a suitable place is found for the sculpture by somebody who has the money to buy it. This means that the creation of large sculptures is restricted; but is partly compensated for by the growth among all kinds of people of a love for sculpture.... This kind of appreciation will help to develop the sense of form (nearly atrophied in Western civilization) until it becomes a part of our life in the way that poetry, music and painting have been and are increasingly part of our life.”

And the new taste for public projects proved both a context and a market for large, site-specific sculptor. Once a hospital might have hung in it's lobby a broad oil of its generous benefactor, for the rest of us to walk respectfully beneath. The creation of institutions such as the NHS allowed for sculpture to celebrate the doctor or surgeon, or perhaps just the idealised human form.

Perhaps the crescending example of this is her largest work, the 6.4 metre tall 'Single Form' outside the UN Secretariat Building in New York. It was built to commemorate the former Secretary General (and personal friend of hers) Dag Hammarskj√∂ld, but of course is not at all a personal portrait. Speaking at its unveiling in 1964 she commented “the United Nations is our conscience. If it succeeds, it is our success. If it fails, it is our failure." (Moore similarly created a work for the UNESCO building in Paris in 1958.)

That much of the public art of this era, donated to public bodies or spaces, is now being sold to private hands or (yes really) carted off by banks encapsulates perfectly the difference between their era and ours. Everything not bolted down is now to be flogged off and everything bolted down to be unbolted on order for it to be flogged off. (It is of course worse when day centres close or one of the world’s richest countries leaves people to die of destitution. But that’s not a defence, just a way of reframing the same critique. Since when was that made the choice we had to make?)

As part of her plan to take art out the gallery and studio Hepworth made collage cut-outs of her sculptures, against both natural and architectural environments. (Some of which have only recently been rediscovered.) Being more abstract than Moore, her work perhaps fitted the urban environment better. But perhaps what's most surprising is how adaptable they are.

The snappily titled 'Photo-collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the Entrance Hall of Flats Designed by Alfred and Emily Roth and Marcel Brewat, Zurich' (1939, above), which was used for the poster image (up top) sees one of her works plinthed in a sleek Modernist pad, the sort of thing we saw Jacob Shulman photographing in 'Constructing Worlds'. A modernist work in a modernist environment - of course it fits! But when you see 'Photo-Collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the Garden of Redleaf, Penshurst' (1938, also above) it also fits - so well it takes you a moment to realise they're the same work. Similarly the later 'Theme on Electronics (Orpheus)' is shown at Mullard Electronics Centre in 1957. Yet there's also a photo of it from the previous year, in her garden. Hepworth's motive may well have been commercial, enhancing sale potential by expanding reach. But we're less interested in intent than effect. This ambidextorousness of her work is in itself a feature of her popularising of Modernism.

One Last Twist

In the mid-Fifties Hepworth made a series of works using the tropical hardwood Guarea. They're considerably larger works given a room of their own, recalling the Elm Figures of the Moore retrospective. And like the Moores they seem grand and ostentatious rather than potent. They look tasteful, like heirloom furniture. At the time I called the Moores “reassuring”. By that point he was washed up. But with Hepworth there's almost literally another twist.

The following room is given over to the bronzes she exhibited at the 1965 Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands. Much effort is put into recreating the once-outdoor pavilion indoors, even down to wallpapering the back wall with a forest scene. This is pointlessly gimmicky, but it doesn't matter much when the new material gives Hepworth such fresh life.

After the perfect geometry of earlier, surfaces are now roughly textured. If you encountered their mottled copper greens while walking outdoors, you'd be hard pressed to figure how naturally weathered they were. Spoke strings vanish while holes multiply and almost take over. Hepworth stretches and twists the material, in a way simply not possible with wood or stone. 'Oval Form (Trezian)' (1961/3, above) looks almost like an enlarged twist of tagliatelli. Other works seem to evoke geometric symmetry only to bend their way out of it, such as 'Curved Form (Trevalgan)' (1956, below). It's a long way from the direct carving days. The works don't necessarily look like they were made, it seems entirely possible they might have grown that way. Perhaps they were once purer forms, but were hurled into Hepworth's elemental sea and emerged looking like they do. They were compared at the time to the younger generation of sculptors associated with the term Geometry of Fear, such as Eduardo Paolozzi or William Turnbull.

Fiona McCarthy writes of the tendency of critics to place Hepworth in Moore's shadow. “When his triumphant 1948 exhibition at the Venice Biennale was followed by Hepworth's lower-key showing two years later, the international critics assumed she was his pupil.” And in some ways this continues. Though we may be less negative about women artists these days, perhaps Hepworth has been running with that handicap since then. Moore's most recent Tate retrospective was five years before this, without critics savaging it in the same way.

Yet however great an artist Moore was, Hepworth was almost certainly better. If the task of an artist is to capture their era, Hepworth took that task on more successfully. Yet paradoxically her art is also more fluid, less tied to a fixed meaning or set of meanings. And she carried on creating innovative works after Moore's effective career was over. She was Britain's best post-war sculptor.

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