New Year, New Inspiration – Barbara Hepworth

The first artist in our New Year, New Inspiration series (read last week’s post for more information) is Barbara Hepworth. This week we’ll share a bit about this amazing artist, and next week we’ll have a project for you inspired by her work.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) is widely recognised as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. She was a pioneer in modern sculpture; her works were known internationally during her lifetime and continue to be loved and celebrated after her death.

Hepworth was born in 1903 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.  She was inspired by Egyptian sculpture during her high school education and, with the ambition of becoming a sculptor, went on to the Leeds School of Art. She continued her art studies at the Royal College of Art in London in the early 1920s and after completing her degree travelled to Italy to learn from a master carver in Rome.

During her early years, Hepworth’s work was representational – meaning you can clearly tell what the inspiration for the art was.  For example this piece created in 1929/1930 is a recognisable figure of a musician:

Musician 1929-1930

From the early 1930s, Hepworth moved towards creating more abstract forms. Abstract art does not attempt to accurately depict something, but instead uses shapes, colours, forms or marks to achieve its effect. To begin with she mingled figurative forms with abstraction – such as in this piece Mother and Child. The figures are recognisable as human figures, but they are not literal depictions – they are reduced to their essential characteristics.

Mother and Child 1934

Eventually Hepworth moved to entirely abstract sculptures.

Curved Form 1956

Hepworth was a prolific artist, creating more than 600 sculptures during her lifetime. She sculpted in many materials including alabaster, wood, bronze, slate, precious metals and marble. While she is primarily known as a sculptor she also worked in other mediums including drawing, painting and photography. Again, she created representational works such as The Hospital Drawings, a collection created in the late 1940s

as well as numerous abstract images.

Hepworth was commercially successful during her lifetime; she was commissioned to produce many pieces for public display. She also influenced, and continues to influence, many other artists.

Hepworth’s inspirations

Although Hepworth lived in St Ives for much of her adult life, she maintained a strong connection to the landscapes of her childhood. As a young girl she had accompanied her father, a County Surveyor, on his trips around Yorkshire and she never forgot this.

“Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were like sculptures; the roads defined the forms. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me.” – Barbara Hepworth

Landscape Sculpture 1944

Much of Hepworth’s art was about relationships. She was interested in the relationships between people, for example the mother and child relationship depicted in several sculptures.

Mother and Child 1934

She was also inspired by the relationship between her sculptures, the landscape surrounding them and how the viewer interacted with the art.

Figure for Landscape 1959-60

Hepworth’s work in ‘piercing’ her carvings (creating holes through them) is considered one of her most significant contributions to abstract sculptures. Her first pierced carving was made in 1931/2

Pierced form 1932

This went on to be a major theme in her work. Hepworth said “There is an inside and an outside to every form”. Her work after the war became increasingly open, hollow out and perforated – the inside space was important as the outside of the sculpture.  Many of her works were intended for outside display and the openings allow the setting to be seen through the sculpture.

Squares with Two Circles 1963

This bronze cast sculpture is just over 3 metres in height and illustrates the effect of the piercings. The openings integrate the sculpture with the landscape and allows the viewer to interact with the sculpture – as you walk around it, you see not only different sides of the art, but also different views of the landscape it is set in.

Inspired by Hepworth

So why have I chosen Hepworth as the first artist in our New Year, New Inspiration series? There are so many reasons to be inspired by Barbara Hepworth. To begin with, her achievements in the art world are awesome. She is an internationally significant sculptor from a time that art – and sculpture especially – was dominated by men. Her work was at the forefront of European modernism and continues to influence artists today.

Her art is really, really beautiful. Pictures don’t fully do it justice, but if you’ve never seen her work before, I hope you can start to understand why I love it so much. There is a calmness about it. It appears simple but yet holds the viewer’s eye. I have seen many of Hepworth’s sculptures and other art work in real life and I never tire of it.

The quantity of her work is breathtaking – and in many cases so is the scale, as illustrated by this photo of Hepworth with Single Form. It seems impossible to be in the presence of such a sculpture and not be in awe of it. And yet, even with her largest pieces of work, the space created by the piercings means that what is not there is just as important  – the space is as much a part of her work as the mass.

On a personal level, as a resident of West Yorkshire, I feel a particular love for Hepworth. Although she spent much of her adult life outside of the area, she was inspired by Yorkshire and I completely understand this. I love the variety of landscapes in Yorkshire – from the urban landscapes of its big cities, to the dales, the wildness of the moors, and the breathtaking coast.

Finally – and of particular importance here – Hepworth inspires me as a quilter. She used a wide range of materials in her work which, at first thought, would seem to be a million miles from quilts. Stone, marble, metal – these are hard, cold, unyielding materials, unlike the soft, warm, draping fabrics used in quilts. However, Hepworth’s sculptures cry out to be touched, stroked – just like a quilt. They are so tactile – when I see them I feel a strong urge to put my hand on them; to feel their form, the smooth lines, the tool marks. It is not enough to only look at them – just like quilts.

So what will we be making?

I’m not telling you much yet about next week’s project – I’m just going to give you a little hint. As you may have guessed, I am interested in the piecing of Hepworth’s sculptures – the shapes cut out of her pieces are fascinating. And it is the piercing which inspires our project. Check back here next Friday to join in!.

More information

Of course, I have only been able to tell you a tiny amount about Barbara Hepworth and her work in this blog post. For more information visit the following sites:

Barbara Hepworth

The Hepworth, Wakefield

Tate Modern

See you next week!

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