photo: detail of Configuration (Phira) 1955. Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
Jon Pratty finds perfumed wood mindbending...
It must have been an extraordinary sight - seventeen tons of Nigerian Guarea hardwood being manhandled on trolleys by sweating and puffing assistants through the narrow, cobbled, crowded streets of St.Ives almost at the furthest tip of Cornwall.
This rare perfumed wood was donated to sculptor Barbara Hepworth, one of the key figures in British Art from the 1920's right through to her death in May 1975 in a fire in her studio.
photo: view of lower gallery 2 (theme: Scented Guarea) Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
The arrival of the massive blocks of Guarea, given to Hepworth (1903 - 1975) by her friend Margaret Gardiner, was a key moment in the sculptor's life.
Hepworth's son Paul Skeaping had been killed on active service in the RAF in February 1953. A black period of sadness descended that didn't truly lift until the artist spent August of 1954 in the Aegian and Cycladic Islands. Gardiner's gift of Guarea re-energised her.
The incredibly involving and emphatic works she carved, chipped, sanded and gouged for the next two years form the heart of this fascinating, moving and unmissable tribute to a great artist.
Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
The show, open until October 12, 2003, assembles for the first time in many years groups of Hepworth's most important works from collections all over the world. Tate Senior Curator Chris Stephens has attempted to show the work thematically, not chronologically.
"She produced a lot of very different work - if you look at her work it is quite eclectic. A large retrospective can look a bit too bitty. The smaller space here and the more intimate galleries allow you to focus in more on certain key aspects."
photo: view of Lower Gallery 2 (theme: Scented Guarea) Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
"St.Ives is such a compact gallery that it frees you from a sense of obligation to a full retrospective. And so, the way the works are installed is very much with the architecture in mind."
Each room is dedicated to a material; marble, wood, stone. As you walk through the show it becomes plain how important different materials were to the work Hepworth made, and the way she treated the materials.
"That's the key thing about this show," said Chris Stephens. "There's nothing very clever about the thesis behind this exhibition. It's about getting into the fundamentals of her work, how she used materials."
photo: Concourse (1948) Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
Stephens wants the show to bring to life a much more human side to Hepworth: at one time, in the 'fifties, she was often criticised, even by people who admired her work, like Patrick Heron, for producing work that was pure and unemotional; not soulless, but very theoretical.
"Her work is of course, very abstract, but certainly not geometrical. Her work, before the 'fifties and after that, is all about the human figure," said Stephens.
photo: Mother and Child (1934) Cumberland alabaster.
Key illustrations of this are found in gallery four, subtitled Maternal Forms. Here you can enjoy early semi-figurative pieces by Hepworth made while she was pregnant with triplets. Mother and Child, 1934, is immensely tender and tactile. Not the work of a cold abstractionist, though there is intensity and purity here.
"And the work relates very closely to Cornwall. It's wonderful to be exploring that here, particularly in the large gallery, with the fusion of the sea and the landscape. So when you view the abstract and the figurative work together, in a way, one kind of 'maps' onto the other," added Chris Stephens.
photo: Sculpture with Colour (Eos) 1946. Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
Perhaps assumptions have been made in the past by casual viewers of this pioneering work. We've become a bit too used to the giant organic forms of Moore - complete with holes. Don't forget Hepworth's development of shape, surface and interior space was leading edge stuff in the twenties. And there's little here which is unconsidered.
Chris Stephens explained that even the small group sculptures have important meaning and intent: "by looking at the way she tries to address issues of social co-operation through figurative and semi-figurative group sculptures, you can reflect back on the abstract compositions and suggest that it's not purely about structural forms, it's about the idea of formal harmony, as a metaphor. "
photo: Pelagos (detail, 1946) wood with painted interior and string. Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
For the first time viewer of Hepworth this show should be rewarding on many levels. The sheer size of many pieces is impressive, then you look at the materials, the grain of the wood, the mass, the convoluting inner worlds, and you start to wonder just how she did it.
"What we're really hoping to say here, is to show how extraordinarily beautiful her best works are, and then to look at the way the forms and her ideas develop. I think that possibly her greatest achievement was her very profound and sophisticated understanding of the mechanics of sculpture - the basic issues of form, space, mass, surface and volume."
photo: Gallery 5, Single Forms, in the rear, Figure in Sycamore (1931) Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
So should you see the show? If you are searching for sculpture that is sensual, tactile and loaded with rich layers of meaning, absolutely. I found my own meanings, even as I walked through with a group of journalists who seemed to have made up their minds about the show before they'd even got on the train.
The show itself is a quiet sensation, but don't forget this is St.Ives - there's even more to see. Just down the road from Tate is Hepworth's studio for the last twenty years of her life.
photo: looking from Four Square Walk Through (1966) onto River Form (1965) Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
The Barbara Hepworth Museum is a very special experience, meditative, secluded from the tourist mass of the town, and everywhere you find the fingerprints of the artist.
It's pretty much been left as it was the tragic day in May 1975 when Hepworth died. Cleaned up, recently restored and extended downstairs, with photos, letters and memorabilia.
photo: the Barbara Hepworth Museum, workshop area. Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum.
I arrived after the press view for the main show at Tate. Strange, evocative experimental music was being rehearsed by musicians dotted around the shrubs, bushes, palms and bronzes. A centenary concert tribute to Hepworth was being played later that day in the church.
photo: River Form, 1965. Photo Jon Pratty © 24 Hour Museum
The entire ragged party of journalists seemed mesmerised by the oddity and resonances of the moment. I drifted off into memories of seventies art college decadence. Maybe it was the scented Guarea.
And now...get a gallery-by-gallery tour of the show with curator Chris Stephens. Click here to learn more about this fascinating exhibition.
Celebrations continue at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where the major outdoor works by Hepworth are on view. To read our review of the exhibition, click the link below: