Barbara Hepworth’s Wave Effect

Barbara Hepworth’s Wave Effect

A spectacular large-scale bronze by Barbara Hepworth brings together her love of the landscape and sea around her home in St Ives, a place from which she drew great inspiration and that allowed her creative experimentation to flourish.
A spectacular large-scale bronze by Barbara Hepworth brings together her love of the landscape and sea around her home in St Ives, a place from which she drew great inspiration and that allowed her creative experimentation to flourish.

I n Sea Form (Atlantic), Barbara Hepworth’s monumental two-metre-high bronze sculpture from 1964 that will be offered in this summer’s Modern British and Irish Art Evening auction, we encounter the artist’s two primary passions: the geographical characteristics of her beloved adoptive county, Cornwall, and the profound physicality of her sculpting process. We also discover a work that highlights the universal appeal of her ability to dig into the emotive power of a landscape, an approach that has seen her sculptures celebrated all around the world.

Bewitched by Cornwall

Barbara Hepworth has become synonymous with the rugged storm-lashed vistas of Cornwall, perhaps only rivalled by her contemporary Daphne du Maurier, whose novels captured the county’s coastline in fiction just as Hepworth’s sculpture shaped it in bronze, wood and plaster. With her husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, she relocated from Hampstead in London to St Ives at the beginning of the Second World War. The region, she confessed, had “bewitched” her.

The surrounding sea, recalled Hepworth, “held within itself the capacity to radiate an infinitude of blues, greys, greens, and even pinks of strange hues.” The artist’s relationship to the ancient topography of West Cornwall is dramatically demonstated with Sea Form (Atlantic), in which she addresses the bluffs around Porthcurno on the surf-dashed extremities of the Penwith Peninsula. Here, Hepworth explained, the cliffs were punctuated by “queer caves pierced by the sea.”

The work’s composition, a slightly unbalanced 'shield', was inspired in part from the Neolithic standing stones at Chun Castle, an Iron Age hillfort near Penzance. But it also possesses echoes of smooth-edged tidal rockpools – especially in the green-patina of the edges of the voids – and the silhouettes of cuttlefish shells. As well, of course, as the smugglers’ caves of yore.

The artist and her art refracted the essence of West Country traditions. In 1965, when a critic for the Sunday Times Magazine visited Hepworth in St Ives, he observed that she “was rather like an extremely amiable Captain Ahab, forever in search of a particularly alluring White Whale – in her case, the next sculpture.”

Casting the Coastline by Hand

Having previously been disappointed with the results of casting bronze works from clay models, Hepworth found a radical new way of working in the late 1950s. Sea Form (Atlantic) shows her reaping the rewards of a shift that brought her a new freedom and openness of expression.

“I like to create the armature of a bronze as if I’m building a boat,” Hepworth explained, referring to the base skeletons of wire and strips of wood – steamed so they could be curved and clamped – that provided the foundation to the structure. To this she added a body of plaster “like covering the bones with skin and muscles. But I build up so that I can cut it. I like to carve the hard plaster surface. Even at the very last minute, when it’s finished, I take a hatchet to it.” For the final shaping, she used a large flat spatula, as if she were finishing the icing on a cake.

“I like to create the armature of a bronze as if I’m building a boat,”

Hepworth’s assemble-and-erase technique allowed her to both direct carve by hand and cast monumentally in bronze. “This method gave me the same feeling of personal surfaces as when I prepare the boards on which I draw and paint,” she explained. “My approach to bronze isn’t a modeller’s approach.” The strategy was hugely successful both artistically and professionally, opening up opportunities to create large-scale bronze works for landscaped sites across the globe.

From St Ives to São Paulo

Hepworth was engrossed with the regional, yet actively engaged – politically, artistically and emotionally – with the outside world. She was a devoted Cornish resident, with her eyes forever cast across its shoreline and rocks seeking inspiration, an ardour so perfectly illustrated by Sea Form (Atlantic). But she was also, simultaneously, a huge figure on a broader cultural stage, whose works have found homes in major international collections: two of the six casts of Sea Form (Atlantic) are on public view in sculpture gardens in America.

Barbara Hepworth’s Figure (Archaean) 1959 at Hakone Open-Air Museum, 1970. Hepworth Photograph Collection © Bowness, Hepworth Estate.

Hepworth’s art possessed a modernity that travelled, its abstraction helping it cross cultural boundaries in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, exhibitions of her sculpture were staged across the US and Canada, from New York to San Francisco and Montreal; by the end of the decade, she had also shown in several South American countries, bolstered by her prize-winning appearance at the São Paulo Biennial in 1959. Later, her monumental garden sculptures were much loved in Japan, where they were shown in Kyoto and at the Hakone Open-Air Museum in the majestic shadow of Mount Fuji.

This internationalist approach was mirrored in her personal life, through her many friendships and collaborations. None, perhaps, were more illustrative of this inclusive stance than her friendship with Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish diplomat who was Secretary-General of the United Nations between 1953 and 1961.

In 1964, the year Sea Form (Atlantic) was cast, Hepworth also presented her colossal masterpiece Single Form at the UN headquarters in New York, a memorial to Hammarskjöld who had died in a plane crash three years earlier. In her speech at the unveiling, she noted that the work symbolised her friend’s aesthetic and ideological vision of unity. It also signified her own all-encompassing, panoramic views on life and art.

Modern British & Irish Art

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