The digitised collection of Laib’s photographs of Hepworth’s work reveals a wealth of unseen sculptures. What struck me in particular was a set of four pictures of an unidentified “carving in rosewood”. Photographed from different angles, all with slightly different backgrounds as a result, it is as if one is walking in a circle around the form. Laib’s negatives recall walking round installations in a museum, something many have not been able to do through the pandemic, with the variation in background adding to this sense that just, as with many things, the setting has become more domesticated and relaxed, outside of the formal constraints of the public museum. Of course, we cannot know if Hepworth ever saw these negatives. But the photos successfully reveal the dynamism and life within the abstract work, something that marks Hepworth’s style. Often compared to Henry Moore, a contemporary that Hepworth attended the Leeds School of Art with, Hepworth’s creative influences and distinct style have fascinated critics for decades.
The figure rests with one knee on a wooden plinth, hands clasped together looking off to the side. The plinth stands out against the body, rough, with the lines of the wood contrasting the smooth texture of the body that rises out of it. The body itself is abstracted; Hepworth doesn’t seem particularly interested in presenting the body in its most accurate or an explicitly gendered form, a theme common throughout her life despite commentators trying to attach meaning to her own femininity. Her focus instead is on the body’s ability to move and the principle of being “true” to the materials she uses. The kneeling pose is transitory; one feels that part of a series of movements has been captured and portrayed. Through free spaces in the work we view the surrounding environment – of course, in Laib’s portrait we see a blank wall, but that blank wall represents a negative space to be filled with whatever we want from the encircling landscape.
Looking at these pictures alone as a way of thinking about Barbara Hepworth’s works poses a unique opportunity for their consideration. We have no dates and no archival information besides Laib’s labelling system for his own reference allowing us to make our own judgements. The carving process used by Hepworth, an avant-garde style called Direct Carving, went straight onto the material that would make the final product connecting artistic idea and material from the beginning.
The artist walks the landscape, over the stone that will then be used in the studio, and a lot of Hepworth’s work throughout her life looks as if it could be found amongst the rocks at her home in St Ives near the cliffs of Penwith. As we see with this figure, made of wood not stone, the body and the material from which it is carved become inseparable as the rough rings of the plinth merge into the base of the statue’s legs. Of course, the abstraction of the human form means that Hepworth’s work, whilst following nature, doesn’t necessarily mimic it. Yet in it, we find a sense of touch, feeling, weight, space and form.
Whilst these photos do not tell us when this statue was made, throughout Hepworth’s life she drew inspiration from her surroundings. From her childhood in Yorkshire to her travels through Florence after art school then most famously, her time in St Ives and Penwith, the landscape and the body were inseparable. For Hepworth, sculpture was the perfect medium, having a unique physicality about it. Of course, later in her career, Hepworth would turn to other styles, producing a series of sketches following the medical professionals at work when her son fell ill, but her legacy is one of sculpture.
Hepworth’s attitude to her work and the way it conveys the relationship between humanity and nature is striking:
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. 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. (Hepworth in Who is Barbara Hepworth?)
Hepworth’s attitude to sculpting the body shows a desire to represent certain fundamental human experiences as well as a strong recognition of the role of her own physicality in her art. Of course, the viewer cannot engage with Hepworth’s work as she asks us to through an archive alone, but these ideas still come through in Laib’s photographs and the angles he has chosen to take pictures from. A 1961 BBC documentary interviewing Hepworth develops these ideas for us – she talks in her studio about representing primitive forces such as survival and growth, vital for both humanity and for the landscape we occupy. The focus on the simplest of feelings and experiences is something that critics have often tried to move away from, asking questions instead about Hepworth’s life and womanhood. For her, however, art was not to be judged by the artist’s background.
When asked about her experiences as a female artist, Hepworth responded: “perhaps the sensation of being a woman gives another facet to the sculptural idea. In some aspects, it is a way of being, instead of observing, which in sculpture must allow its own emotional development of form” (Hepworth in Gonçalves Magalhães).
This emphasis on emotionality and bodies of feeling reflects the depiction of the human form as close to nature and removed from any set rules of realism. The human body is part of the landscape and captures in its movement and its relationship to its surroundings from the plinth it rises from, to the free spaces made by gaps in the work.
Responding to the work of an artist through the medium of previously unpublished photographs poses its challenges given the assumptions that have to be made to even begin any discourse. However, it also allows us to respond in a way unaffected by curators or critics. Combining our primary response with knowledge of Hepworth’s life and how she engaged with her artistic methods offers a means of analysis that although cannot answer questions, allows us to apply critical curiosity and ask new questions. The centrality of visual response, uninformed by the facts that a viewer in a gallery might be given, provides the viewer of these archives with a unique starting point, and for me, is what makes looking at these works so interesting.
Sophie S Wright, Jesus College (Oxford)
Courtauld Connects Digitisation – Oxford Micro-Internship Participant
Who is Barbara Hepworth? Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/dame-barbara-hepworth-1274/ who-is-barbara-hepworth
Barbara Hepworth. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013h27r
Clayton E, ‘The Whole QuesNon of Plinths’ in Barbara Hepworth’s 1968 Tate
Retrospective’. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/25/whole-question-of- plinths
Gonçalves Magalhães A ‘Barbara Hepworth in Brazil’. Available at: https://www.britishartstudies.ac.uk/issues/ issue-index/issue-3/sao-paolo-hepworth
Winterson J, ’The hole of life’. Available at: hXps://www.tate.org.uk/art/arNsts/dame-barbara-hepworth-1274/ hole-life