Hepworth At St.Ives - A Tour With Curator Chris Stephens

By Jon Pratty | 12 June 2003

photo: rare Hepworth 'single forms' seen together for the first time in many decades.

Gallery 5 / Single Forms

Chris Stephens, curator of Tate St.Ives Barbara Hepworth centenary exhibition, walks us through the show.

"This room introduces the crucial theme in Hepworth's work of the human figure, and the idea of the evolution from the figurative to the purely abstract.

We've got some very early pieces here, starting from the late 1920's and two from the early 30's. These first works show her fascination with early non-western cultures, which she shared with close contemporaries like her husband John Skeaping; Henry Moore and Brancusi.

Particularly, look at the dark wood figure in this room: the facial features bear a clear relationship to African masks. Hepworth herself said these standing torsos were refined down to produce what were the most purely abstract works she ever made."

photo: single forms - Figure in Sycamore, (1931) in the rear.

"These are the only three of the early 'Single Forms'which survive, which we know the whereabouts of. There is supposed to be a fourth wooden one somewhere, but no one knows where. If anyone's seen it, I'd love to find it!

The great revelation for me in this room are the subtle differences between the woods. The forms are rather similar, but the colouring, the nature of the wood, the grain and so on, really gives each one a presence."

photo: Mother and Child, (1934) Cumberland alabaster.

Gallery 4 / Maternal Forms

"This room looks at her fascination with the theme of mother and child, a staple theme for many artists. Unlike many prominent artists of her time, she was approaching the theme as a mother herself.

The works in here from the 'twenties still show the influences of early cultures, still fairly descriptive. A piece to be added to the show soon, is the last from a series of works she made where the mother and child are each carved from a separate piece of stone.

Here we start to get a sense that there is something far more complex in her treatment of the theme - the consciousness that mother and child are both united, and separate.

Interestingly, the two figures in the room centre, the Tate's Mother and Child, and the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness' Large and Small Form, (both 1934) were almost certainly made when she was pregnant with her triplets."

photo: Sculpture with Colour - Eos (1946)

"So there's a fascinating thing in the sculpture here, addressing this fundamental subject, the psychological process of pregnancy. It's a theme she came back to later, in the '50's in a sculpture which has come from a girl's school in St. Albans, which is starting to move towards the more specific Madonna and Child which she made for St.Ives Church, in memory of her son (killed in an air crash whilst in the RAF) - still in the church here if you want to see it.

She was fascinated with forms within forms, seeds within pods, babies within wombs, and how that fundamental sense of vulnerability and protection was so crucial to people's experience. And of course, again, she's saying - that in the context of someone who was a mother, and trying to weigh up that balance of motherhood and being a professional artist."

photo: Involute 11 (1946)

"And also we see here Hepworth increasingly developing the idea of individual integration with nature - which relates back to her being in Cornwall, and being close to the landscape.

Here are three works that develop her interest in the tension between the inside and the outside of the sculpture: and this became the key characteristic of Hepworth's work. The relationship between the surface of the block or log of her material, and the inner space and how the space became a crucial part of the sculpture.

That's the formal side of it; the thematic side is the ideas of growth and birth. You have a work here that is clearly egg-like, which she also relates to the experience of landscape - with deep blue. She talked also of plunging into the sea, and plunging into the sculpture."

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