Left: the artist herself, at work in her studio. © The Hepworth Estate.
Anna Goodall headed to Yorkshire to see this stunning exhibition.
The Yorkshire Sculpture Park's main building is set in sweeping countryside with only the glint of cars in the distance a reminder that the M1 is close by. The man-made lines of the architecture cut through, but do not spoil, the surroundings. On the contrary they co-exist productively together.
It is a fitting start to the Barbara Hepworth centenary exhibition, at the YSP until September 14. The exhibition focuses on sculpture from the last period of her life, 1953 - 1973.
Hepworth was obsessed by the shapes and forms of the Yorkshire dales - in particular the idea of man’s place within it - and had been since childhood.
She wrote in 1966, "I would imagine stone 'images' rising out of the ground." This visual and intense image is substantially more than most would glean from a post-prandial stroll in rainy Yorkshire.
The power of Hepworth's work however, lies in its universal quality. She wrote in 1970, "On the lonely hills a human figure has the vitality and poignancy of all man's struggles in this universe."
Right: Family of Man, 1970. © The Hepworth Estate.
Hepworth was a key figure in the abstract sculpture movement in Britain alongside the likes of Henry Moore and Kenneth Armitage. Her sculpture, Construction (Crucifixion) (1966) - strikingly different from the other pieces on show - is a homage to the abstract artist Pier Mondrian, and his vision of an idealised utopia of form.
Hepworth's work, and its interaction with the landscape, means it is never as contained as Mondrian’s. Whilst understanding the intent and process behind her contemporaries’ desire for abstract purity, her sculptures always engage with the world around them.
The smooth tarnished bronzes of rich brown and battered turquoise are instantly appealing. With all her work, the first thing you want to do is touch them. When you do, it is like touching an ancient tree that is both fragile and incredibly strong. This is a testament to her great skill and understanding of the materials she used, and also to her belief in the sensuality of her creations.
Spring (1965), a model for a larger work, draws the eye into its vortex via the sphere's smooth contours. The strings that head to the centre spin in on themselves and rush outwards again. It is a labyrinth of formal possibilities, and like all Hepworth it disallows one viewpoint.
In the grounds, Dual Form's (1965) multi-layered opening in the bronze allows us to peer through and see the green lawns beyond. However, our consequentially skewed sight suggests the possibility of a tunnel to something beyond the tangible world of the gardens.
The crucial question in all the work is asked by the exhibition, "...do we see a form, like a figure standing in a landscape, or are the sculptures landscapes in themselves?"
Left: Squares with two circles, 1963. © The Hepworth Estate.
There is certainly a mystical other worldliness to all her creations and this is highlighted by a gallery containing smaller marble works.
This whitewashed space contains pure, polished forms. Some are pebbles, others are like pavings tilted to catch a distant light. They are all achingly smooth and blank. Two round pebbles, Two Rocks (1971), seemed to be conducting a whispered conversation in a strange tongue we can't understand. It is like walking into an alien lunar landscape.
As with all works of genius, Hepworth's pieces can function on every level. Her lifelong fascination with the friction and wonder caused by a figure, or figures, in the environment has produced art that stimulates the senses and the imagination.
Like many abstract artists, she was interested in music and her work could be compared to a rich chord in Bach. The isolation of the human figure in the world is key, but its resonance taps into something greater and universal that is difficult to comprehend.
Reviewer Anna Goodall is participating in the 24 Hour Museum / Museum and Galleries Month Arts Writing Prize.