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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, June 10, 2004
    Barbara Hepworth - rooted in abstraction
    "The two things which interest me most are the significance of human action, gesture and movement, in the particular circumstances of our contemporary life, and the relation of these human actions to forms which are eternal in their significance." - Barbara Hepworth, 1952.

    The 'particular circumstances' in which Barbara Hepworth produced the main body of her work were the years of turmoil in Europe in the central part of the twentieth century, and their aftermath. I'm engaging with her work, for the first time really, at a time of anniversary: the 60th and perhaps the last great D-Day commemoration before the remaining Normandy survivors go the way of all flesh.

    So, as she created her works of public art Hepworth would have in her miond perhaps, the human actions of brutality and slaughter people inflicted on each other in wartime, the corresponding gestures of grace, comradeship and forgiveness, and the great movements of peoples uprooted by war, searching for new beginnings in a slowly-healing and reconstructed post-war world.

    What 'eternal forms' were affected by these human endeavours? I'm thinking of boundary-lines between nations shifted by conflict (walls erected, treaties signed); of the shapes of cities bombed and redesigned, of soil and sand reconstituted by the blood of thousands in the fields and on the beaches of battle. In Hepworth's time, 'eternal forms' have taken on new significances: the circle has become the shape of the ring-road, symbol of speed and accessibility, the privatisation of movement, perpetrator of urban drift and economic drag; the vertical line an indicator of the many new channels of communication in a satellite-networked world.

    So Hepworth's art, for all its abstractness, is rooted, political, born of engagement with human spirit, achievements and dilemmas. I like it for that, feel I can begin to understand it, knowing that. I like also that while it is the product of a gorgeous garden studio in this slowed-down, shambling holiday town, her art has global, universal reach. Not for Hepworth pictures of little boats bobbing between deep blue sea and shining skies - ubiquitous here in St Ives' many galleries (two-a-penny but far more expensive than that).

    Instead Hepworth explores the standing form "which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape" (Poised Form), the two forms "which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another" (Two Forms, Divided Circle), and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) "which translates for me the association and meaning of gesture in landscape, in the repose of say a mother and child, or in the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit" (Pelagos 1946).

    Because her works are abstract they will not assimilate to specific politics or fundamentalist perspectives: instead they excite the imagination of the viewer to make connections back into their specific concerns.

    Because they are often outdoor works, public art, they can help the viewer in that place reflect on their "position in landscape and ... relation to the structure of nature".

    In visiting the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden this week I'm struck by another anniversary. In June 1964 Hepworth's Single Form (model here) was erected, twenty-two feet high, outside the Secretariat of the United Nations in New York. Conceived in conversation with her friend, then U.N. General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold, and completed in his memory after his accidental death, Single Form is in one elevation thin, insubstantial, almost unnoticeable, and in another wide, weighty, bold. Forty years ago this month, Hepworth's most significant public work is not a war memorial, but rather a meditation in bronze on the strength and vulnerability, the tensions and the reach of peacemaking.