By the 1950s Hepworth was experiencing a period of increasing international recognition. The decade was book-ended by her representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and receiving the grand prize at the São Paulo Bienal of 1959 – the latter coinciding with her decision to carve a discrete group of alabaster sculptures, of which Spiral was one, through which she sought to distil her ideas, both past and future. Yet despite her work becoming larger – often public commissions - she continued to forbid any use of mechanical tools in her studio in St Ives.
At the point at which Hepworth produced Spiral, she had already begun to work in bronze, brought to monumental realisation in works such as Single Form, 1961-4, United Nations Building, New York. Working simultaneously in bronze, wood and stone, she continued to pursue the concept of ‘truth to materials’, a pioneering movement in British sculpture in the 1920s and early 1930s, when both Hepworth and her contemporary, Henry Moore, came of age as artists. In essence, ‘truth to materials’ required the sculptor to let the nature of their chosen material – its surface, its density, the overall shape of the original block – dictate the final form of the work. Soft stones such as alabaster or marble, or resin-rich woods such as lignum vitae, can be carefully carved to ‘reveal’ their curving, liquid inner forms; hard stones, on the other hand, demanded to be cut at angles, incised with sharp lines; and everything should keep a trace of where the sculptor started from, the rough-hewn block, whether in the form of uncarved areas or heads and legs bent and distorted to follow the limits set by the quarryman.
The source of the idea of ‘truth to materials’ was, of course, the work of Constantin Brâncuși, who brought carving in stone back to primal forms. Yet Picasso was equally influential, as the idea was very much part of his perception of what gave African art its power and authenticity and accounted for the apparent ‘primitivism’ of its appearance: this was sculpture that did not hide its manufacture or its origins. ‘Truth to materials’ was about getting back to basics, to the Jungian ideas of ‘universal form’ – forgotten archetypes that spoke to the human consciousness on a level lost to Western Academic art. Hepworth herself wrote: ‘I feel it ought to be possible to induce those evocative responses that seem to be part of primeval life, and which are a vital necessity to a full apprehension of space and volume’ (Barbara Hepworth, quoted in Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, Tate Publishing, London, 1985, p.27).
Hepworth had made her first foray into the use of alabaster in the late 1920s, the relative pliability of the material enabling her to manipulate and incise the surface with detailing and pattern that was beguilingly tactile. Returning to the medium again for Spiral in 1959, she sought particularly to maximise the translucency of the stone. With a profound understanding of the unique qualities of her chosen materials, Hepworth exploited the evocative properties of semi-opaque alabaster. Like a painting of a nude made more seductive by an artfully-draped robe, so the lustrous alabaster entices yet eludes, hinting at what might be contained within the solid stone. An interior life is revealed, but only partially and for Hepworth, there was an ‘intense pleasure’ in ‘relating oneself to the ‘life’ in the particular material’ (Barbara Hepworth quoted in Michael Shepherd, Barbara Hepworth, Methuen, London, 1963 unpaginated).
For Hepworth, the physical demands of carving led to its association with a certain honesty and integrity in process and result. The artist had to use physical strength as well as artistic skill to coax a leaden block into life. As A.M. Hammacher noted, ‘The resistance offered by the material was discovered to have an influence on the conception of form. There was a fruitful contact between the creative will of the artist and the forces, as it were, latent in the material.’ (A.M. Hammacher, Barbara Hepworth, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p.21). Hepworth herself saw the most successful of her carved works as a taut balance between the chosen material and the forms realised within the stone during the chiselling process: ‘In sculpture there must be a complete realisation of the structure and quality of the stone or wood which is being carved…I believe that the understanding of the material and the meaning of the form being carved must be in perfect equilibrium’ (Barbara Hepworth, quoted in Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Exhibition 1927-1954, exh. cat. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1954, p.10).
The pierced element of Spiral is, again, a motif that stretches back to the early decades of the artist’s career, to the early 1930s when both she and Henry Moore introduced pierced elements into their sculptures for the first time, a seismic moment in the development of modernist sculpture. As the sculpture is literally and metaphorically opened, it becomes replete with possibility for symbolism and allusion, mystery and metaphor. The core of the previously impenetrable solid object ruptures and is flooded with space: rather than a void or absence, the central fissure becomes a presence in its own right. The internal curvature of the sculpture, an entirely new component, springs into prominence, whilst a transformation occurs in the fall and play of light on, around and through the work. The view through the very heart of a pierced work situates it unquestionably into its environment and induces a fundamentally kinetic reaction, as the viewer peers through and walks around the sculpture. Here in Spiral, the development of the void from circular to spiral encourages a unity between form and not-form. ‘The hole is no longer an aggressive attack on the closed form but acquires a dominant significance in harmony with the total mass. It is as if the spiral concept binds the two components (the open and the closed) together in one movement.’ (A.M. Hammacher, op.cit. p.105). Together with Moore, Hepworth re-shaped the course of British sculpture and influenced a generation of internationally acclaimed artists and sculptors, including Anish Kapoor, Anthony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread. As Hepworth did before them, these British sculptors interrogate our concept of interior space, of how not-matter is contained, shaped and defined.
In 1939, Hepworth (with her then-husband Ben Nicholson) had relocated to St Ives, on the westernmost tip of the Cornish peninsular, a move that was to have a profound influence on her work, which became infused with the landscape of West Penwith –weather-beaten, surrounded by sea and light, a wild country marked by human presence, with its standing stones and disused mines.
Cornwall provided a vital source of energy and inspiration for Hepworth’s work: ‘Here I can slowly travel to a nearby hill and, with larks singing above and the distant sound of sea and wind and voices carrying from faraway farms, a distant figure is a monument, whilst I myself am cradled in the anatomy of landscape.’ (Barbara Hepworth quoted in Alan Wilkinson, ‘Cornwall and the Sculpture of Landscape: 1939-1975’, in Penelope Curtis and Alan G. Wilkinson (eds), Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, Tate Publications, London, 1994, p.83). For Hepworth, there was also an unbroken continuity between the nurturing spaces of the human body and the psychical and physical support provided by the landscape: ‘I cannot write anything about landscape without writing about the human figure and human spirit inhabiting the landscape. For me, the whole art of sculpture is the fusion of these two elements – the balance of sensation and evocation of man in this universe.’ (Barbara Hepworth, ibid, p.79).
The specific and magical appeal of Cornwall lay in the intrinsic connections between the countryside and its history, mythology and folklore, woven into numerous spellbinding legends embedded within the stones and earth. As early as 1937, critics such as Desmond Bernal (in the introduction to Hepworth’s solo show that year) were associating her work with the mysterious Neolithic pierced standing stones of Cornwall, but as the artist herself noted, this was rather ‘curious’ as ‘at that time I’d never heard of Cornwall, and knew nothing about dolmens and cromlechs and the like. All it did coming here was to ratify my ideas that when you make a sculpture you’re making an image, a fetish, something which alters human behaviour or movement. Now I’ve come to love this landscape and don’t want to leave it. Any stone standing in the hills here is a figure, but you have to go further than that. [...] I like to dream of things rising from the ground – it would be marvellous to walk in the woods and suddenly come across such things. Or to meet a reclining form.’ (Barbara Hepworth in conversation with Alan Bowness, Alan Bowness (ed.), The Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth 1960-69, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1971, p.13).
A rare and supremely captivating carving, Spiral speaks of concerns universal and specific: the slippage between form and not-form, the relationship between human body and its environment, the iconography of material and the presence of the artist’s hand and to the endless emotional and intellectual possibilities of abstract sculpture.
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