In praise of the Divine
In the early 20th century alternative philosophies were beginning to permeate western culture. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy, the teachings of the Armenian mystic, G. I. Gurdjieff and the American Christian Science, spread through the works of Mary Baker Eddy: Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, were gathering momentum. As was an interest in psychoanalysis. The hold of the Anglican Church, in which the sculptor Barbara Hepworth had been raised, was losing its grip. Many artists and intellectuals were looking for alternative means of spiritual and artistic expression.
At various times throughout her life Hepworth identified herself as a Christian Scientist. (Broadly, in Christian Science, spirit is understood to be the meaning and reality of being, where all issues contrary to the goodness of Spirit – God – are considered to originate in the flesh -‘matter’ – understood as materialism where humanity is separated from God).
Hepworth’s beliefs were fluid rather than constrained by doctrine and changed throughout her life. Yet what is clear from her archives is that spiritual concerns were central both to her life and work. With its emphasis on an infinite and harmonious intelligence, Christian Science provided her with an alternative lens through which to reassess orthodox Western beliefs. When, after her failed marriage to the sculptor John Skeaping she met the artist Ben Nicholson who was to become her second husband, the fact that he was a Christian Scientist gave their romantic and artistic relationship a charged metaphysical perspective. In an interview in 1965 with the Christian Science Monitor, Hepworth asserted that: “A sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit’.
Hepworth and Nicholson moved to St. Ives in Cornwall at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was to become a refuge for many international artists and provided Hepworth with light, air and an unmediated landscape. She was to live there until her death in a fire at her home in May 1975. The 1952 film, Figures in a Landscape, shown at the Tate exhibition, with its rather florid commentary by the poet Jacquetta Hawkes spoken by Cecil Day-Lewis, may not have been completely to Hepworth’s taste, but it emphasises, as the camera pans over megalithic stones and the sea pounds the Cornish coast to leave holes and abrasions in the rock, the atavistic influences of the landscape on her work, and the importance of harmony with nature.
For many Hepworth has come to be associated primarily with St. Ives but this Tate exhibition aims to broaden that reading, following the trajectory from her smaller carved figurative works of the Twenties to the larger cast abstract bronzes of the Fifties and Sixties – when she represented Britain in the Venice Biennale. It also includes a number of bronzes made for Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the the Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands in 1965.
An Act of Praise, the essay in the exhibition catalogue by Lucy Kent, which explains Hepworth’s work in terms of her beliefs, is a revelation. That the Tate did not choose to build the show around these ideas rather than somewhat academically illustrating how Hepworth’s work was presented in the media, is a lost opportunity. Christianity is now so unfashionable in this country that it’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary artist admitting to such influences or working in this way. What becomes apparent is that form for Hepworth was not simply a theoretical concern but a search for spiritual harmony, for the transcendental within the nature of things.
Direct carving rather than modelling in clay was always her preferred method, one that was supported in the writings of her contemporary, the art critic Adrian Stokes, who under the influence the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein was concerned with the relationship between the internal and the external. Stokes, who was also to make Cornwall his home, wrote: ‘‘Whatever its plastic value, a figure carved in stone is fine carving when one feels that not the figure, but the stone through the medium of the figure, has come to life’. He added: ‘The communion with a material, the mode of eliciting the plastic shape, are the essence of carving.’
Emphasising the relationship to carving the Tate exhibition opens with a number of works by Hepworth’s contemporaries. These include lesser known female sculptors, such as Elsie Marion Henderson, as well as Henry Moore, and her first husband, John Skeaping, who claimed to have taught her how to carve. Hepworth’s early carvings sit poised between figuration and abstraction. In her white marble Mother and Child, 1933 the figures can hardly be differentiated one from the other. Two crude heads emerge from the same lump of stone full of tender intimacy like those of Siamese twins.
In 1932 she produced her first ‘pierced’ sculpture. It is no coincidence that this was at the height of her commitment to a religion that denied the reality of material existence. To pierce the composition allowed her to sculpt not only with matter but with space, to elide inside and outside, the formal with the spiritual. Air and light were integral to her compositions and the aperture lead to a ‘place’ beyond the physical confines of the material. In 1933 she and Nicholson spent time in Paris with other abstract artists who were also showing an interest in transcendental matters. Brancusi and Braque were exploring Zen Buddhism, Mondrian and Arp Theosophy, while Naum Gabo was engrossed with Einstein’s investigations that ‘destroyed the borderlines between Matter and Energy, between Space and Time’.
In her Two Forms 1935 carved in white marble, Hepworth reveals her absorption in the relationship between space, texture and weight. Yet despite the evident formal concerns of these ovoid forms – how they sit next to each other, how they cast shadows – the smoothly polished surface is as inviting as skin. Her sculptures describe, in abstract terms, deep human emotions, feelings of connectivity to other people, to the divine and to the landscape in which she chose to work and live. In 1937 she claimed that: ‘Vision is not sight- it is the perception of the mind. It is the discernment of the reality of life, a piercing of the superficial surfaces of material existence that gives a work of art its… significant power’.
It too easy to dismiss Hepworth’s work as dated, the sort of sculpture with its holes and strings that was satirised in Punch magazine in the 50s and 60s as ‘modern art’. But re-visited with a fresh eye and understood within the context of her religious beliefs, we come to understand the ‘affirmative’ power that fostered spiritual and social harmony within her art, Hepworth bridges a gap between the personal and universal, the transcendental and the chthonic to deal with the ineffable in a way that few artists would consider doing today.
Barbara Hepworth with the plaster of Single Form 1961-4 at the Morris Singer foundry, London, May 1963
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Photograph by Morgan-Wells
Curved Form (Delphi) 1955
Guarea wood, part painted, with strings
1067 x 787 x 813 mm
Ulster Museum, Belfast
Large and Small Form 1934
250 x 450 x 240 mm
The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney
Published in 3 Quarks Daily