CR Muse: Barbara Hepworth and the Beauty of Her Sculptures

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This is CR Muse, a new series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

“What is the meaning of sculpture?” The legendary sculptor Barbara Hepworth mused in 1959. “When we are all conscious of the expanding universe, the forms experienced by the sculptor should express not only this consciousness but should, I feel, emphasize also the possibilities of new developments of the human spirit, so that it can affirm and continue life in its highest form.”

They are illuminating words from an artist whose work is not easy to label as just “abstraction.” Producing rounded forms of varying sizes, Hepworth’s sculptures seem as if they’ve been frozen in a moment; like transitioning organic forms that were in a state of motion, no more. As many historians have pointed out, Hepworth’s work was just as much about form as it was about relationships. Not just in subject matter, but in how the pieces related to the spaces they were in, and in turn, how the viewer reacted to them.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that as her career progressed she was increasingly inspired by the outdoors, and her work became more and more abstract. Take for example, her “Mother and Child” sculpture from 1927, which clearly showed two human figures, and compare it to “Mother and Child” from 1934—there is a significant shift in her style, with the latter focusing much more on the concept rather than a realistic depiction. “Child with Mother” from 1972, moves even further away from recognizable forms. What remains constant in her work is a sense of tactility. Working with steel, stone, bronze, and wood, Hepworth’s pieces relied on materials that could translate the gravitas her work required to stand in nature.

“I think every sculpture must be touched, it’s part of the way you make it and it’s really our first sensibility, it is the sense of feeling, it is first one we have when we’re born,” she has said of how she wants people to appreciate her work. “I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with as sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it, and walk away from it.” Unsurprisingly, she created a sculpture garden at her studio, which is still open today.

Though sculpture wasn’t Hepworth’s only form of expression (she produced drawings, paintings, and in her later years experimented with lithographs) it is certainly what she is remembered for. Born in 1903 in Yorkshire, she attended the Leeds School of Art on scholarship at 17, where she soon met her friend (and eventual professional rival) Henry Moore. Hepworth continued to earn scholarships, which took her to the Royal College of Art, and Florence. By 1949, she settled down in St Ives, living in Trewyn Studios, where she remained until her death. Today, her work continues to be displayed at Trewyn Studios, and publicly all over the world—including outside the United Nations Secretariat building in New York City.

What is perhaps most interesting about Hepworth (one of the most respected artists in her time) is not only how she triumphed as a woman in a male-dominated field, but that she did not acknowledge a linguistic distinction that separated her from her peers. As the art historian Alan Bowness noted, she “asked simply to be treated as a sculptor (never a sculptress),” dismissing the notion that women in any field need a signifier of their gender. In this regard, Hepworth leveled the playing field, proving that she was creatively equal and demanding that her legacy be part of art history—not just women’s art history.

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