Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Barbara Hepworth, Born on this day in 1903

Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. Barbara Hepworth was a sculptor and a leading figure in British sculpture as well as the international art scene until her death.

Hepworth studied at Leeds school of Art from 1920–1921 alongside fellow Yorkshire-born artist Henry Moore. Both students continued their studies in sculpture at the Royal College of Art in London. Both became leading practitioners of the avant-garde method of Direct Carving (working directly in to the chosen material) avoiding the more traditional process of making preparatory models and maquettes from which a craftsman would produce the finished work. She moved toward greater and greater abstract forms. creating work that was also tactile and sensuous. 

From 1924 Hepworth spent two years in Italy, and in 1925 married her first husband, the artist John Skeaping, in Florence; their marriage was to last until 1931. But it was never an easy marriage; Skeaping was self indulgent and charming but feckless, and found Hepworth's fierce drive frightening and worse of all for a woman, not sexy. "Barbara was very unsexy and I was just the opposite," he maintained in his complacent autobiography.

From 1932, she lived with the painter Ben Nicholson and, for a number of years, the two artists made work in close proximity to each other, developing a way of working that was almost like a collaboration. They spent periods of time in Europe, and it was here that Hepworth met Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian, and visited the studios of PicassoConstantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp and Sophie Taueber-Arp. The experience was a hugely exciting one for Hepworth, for she not only found herself in the studios of some of Europe’s most influential artists, which helped her to approach her own career with renewed vigor and clarity, but also found there mutual respect. The School of Paris had a lasting effect on both Hepworth and Nicholson as they became key figures in an international network of abstract artists.

Barbara Hepworth deserves wider recognition as an artist of extraordinary stature whose importance is still to some extent hidden by the fame of the men in her life. Over 50 years, from 1925 to her death in 1975, she made more than 600 works of sculpture remarkable in range and emotional force. Her private life was complicated, at times traumatic: two marriages and four children, three of whom were triplets. And there was the long disruption of the war. What makes Hepworth wonderful was the strength of her ambition, the unswerving self-belief. She demonstrated so tangibly her understanding that "the dictates of work are as compelling for a woman as for a man”.

In 1934, Hepworth's unexpected triplets Simon, Rachel and Sarah were born.

The practical problems were formidable. But Hepworth did not reject being a mother, and was able to draw on the resources of her time and place - a nursery-training college, scholarships to a progressive boarding school. The whole business of organizing and keeping things together fell to her (of course) and she has been heavily criticized for not dropping her art and devoting her time and energies to being a more traditional mother. Nicholson has never been criticized. Intellectually she found the balancing of work and domesticity challenging but one that stimulated her creativity. 

 "A woman artist," she argued, "is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) - one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one's mind." She came to see that the female physical experiences extended the range of the artistic perceptions. When she watched a woman carrying a child in her arms, she would feel the experience as if it were her own.

She tenaciously continued to develop her own work, refining naturalism, creating the series of strictly abstract white marble circles, segments, slabs that became a symbol of 1930s Hampstead. For many leftwing artists, abstraction had become an article of faith, a bastion of freedom in the face of European fascist censorship.

When WW II broke out, Hepworth, Nicholson, the children and family help left for Cornwall where Barbara established a secondary circle for British art that survived WW II, although she was continually eclipsed by those who viewed Moore as the better artist. Her strong will and fierce determination to create too a toll on all her relationships although she was never "cut any slack" the way male artists are. 

Even after her life fell apart, even after the death of her eldest son Paul (1953) , even after the diagnosis of cancer of the tongue, she kept on working, kept on creating." In those last years before her accidental death by fire in her own house, she returned to smaller carvings - to themes of myth and magic, to the gravitas and stillness that was so strong in her." A life long smoker and now in extreme pain from cancer, Hepworth took a sleeping pill and fell asleep with a cigarette in her mouth. She was 72. 

One can only hope that like Lee Krasner, her artistic vision will be recognized for what it is -- and not as a pale reflection of the men in her life.

1 comment:

Carla Ives said...

Another new artist to me, albeit maybe a tad more modern than I care for. Still, I like the next to the last work depicted, the open sphere. There's something about that one that speaks to me. I hope she has a really good place in art history as there were so few female sculptors.