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Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land: Barbara Hepworth at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art


Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life, Wakefield, 21 May 2021 to 27 February 2022; Edinburgh, 9 April to 2 October 2022; St. Ives, 26 November 2022 to 1 May 2023; Eastbourne, 27 May 2023 to 3 September 2023

In 1969, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth wrote to her ex-husband, Ben Nicholson, “so much depends, in sculpture, on what one wants to see through a hole!”[1] What emerges in a sustained encounter with Hepworth’s work is her philosophy that sculpture is not simply a form carved or constructed out of specific material, but an intervention in a physical space, comprising the sculpture itself, the viewer, and the space surrounding it. Her work is a material manifestation of the Wallace Stevens poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” in which a jar placed on a hill manipulates the surrounding landscape to render it “no longer wild,” but an artificially constructed vista.[2]

Curated by Eleanor Clayton, Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life explores Hepworth’s work from the early drawings of her school years to her late monumental work, presenting over one hundred and twenty pieces that chronicle Hepworth’s development as an artist and her careful attention to form itself. The exhibition opens with a survey of the forms Hepworth returned to repeatedly throughout her life: double, standing, and closed. In this initial gallery, Totem (1960–1962), a white pillar of marble pierced through to suggest a torso and its head, embodies both humanity and mysticism (fig. 1). Nearby stands Hieroglyph (1953), a hewn piece of Lincolnshire limestone into which two, abstracted figures seem to have been carved out. The form is both single and double, suggesting a unity between individuals and their environment. Totem and Hieroglyph seem to almost be inverse works to each other – one figural in stature, the other in absence; one ethereal in its white luster, the other rough and earthen. Both, however, express a general postwar interest in monument, mysticism, and ruin, and gesture towards Hepworth’s developing artistic philosophy of the period.

abstract sculpture
Fig. 1. Barbara Hepworth, Totem, 1960 - 62. Wakefield Permanent Art Collection. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Photo: Jerry Hardman-Jones

After this gallery, the exhibit is chronological, beginning in the 1920s. From the start of Hepworth’s career, her interest in received forms is clear. In 1929, she carved two Torso statues from wood: both armless and headless, their forms reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman statues ravaged by time. In these carvings, Hepworth takes ruined, partial forms and re-renders them as complete forms of her own. At the same time, this engagement with the ancient places her on her trajectory of modernist simplification. In the second of the Torso statues, the curves used to define the figure are very slight, mere suggestions toward a human form.

As the exhibition moves through the 1930s and 40s, it features works that Hepworth produced while raising infant triplets during the Second World War. These works, including her famous Mother and Child pieces, are widely considered some of her best, and demonstrate her need to create regardless of circumstance. Almost an entire gallery is dedicated to Hepworth’s war work. Lacking a studio after the family had sequestered itself in Cornwall in 1939, Hepworth funneled her creative energy into a multitude of geometric drawings, mostly done at night. Despite their medium, the color and shading lift the angular forms of pieces such as Oval Form No. 2 (1942) (fig. 2) off the page, reinforcing Hepworth’s description of these drawings as “my sculptures born in the disguise of 2 dimensions.”[3]

The exhibition creates the effect of casting these drawings into sculptural form by arranging them alongside the few sculptures Hepworth managed to produce during and immediately after the war. Wave (1943-1944) (fig. 3) recreates the movement and tension of the wartime drawings in its use of color, oval shape, and strings. The geometric complexity of the piece seems to have been pre-formulated in Hepworth’s Oval Form drawings, where spiraling curves and angles are intricately traced and shaded to indicate the form’s structural dimensions.

Fig. 2. Barbara Hepworth, Oval Form No. 2, 1942, pencil and gouache on paper. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Photo: Simon Warner

Like Oval Form No. 2, in Wave (1943) (fig. 3), Hepworth joins the edges of the shape together with a series of lines – in this case strings – emanating from the tip of the curve. These particular strings are fishing line, evoking Hepworth’s material connection to the community of St. Ives, drawing their livelihood from the surrounding waters. Moreover, the geometry of Wave aims to translate the shape and qualities of the Cornish sea, reflecting the significance of the Cornish landscape to Hepworth’s mature work.

Fig. 3. Barbara Hepworth, Wave, 1943–1944. Wood, paint, string. 30.50 x 44.50 x 21.00 cm. Purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund and the Henry Moore Foundation 1999. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland.

Through both World Wars, Cornwall became a site of both refuge and creative possibility for a number of artists and authors, including Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and Mary Butts. A safe haven outside of war-torn London, its landscape was a source of inspiration for Hepworth, who saw “strange and wonderful calligraphy” in “the pale granite sand”, as well as for the poet H.D., who similarly writes in Bid Me to Live of the Cornish landscape as a “hieroglyph.”[4] The colors and shapes of the landscape that inspired Hepworth influenced a number of other artists and sculptors who moved to St. Ives after the war, drawn to the abstract artistic practices of Hepworth, Nicholson, and Naum Gabo.

One aspect of the Cornish landscape that took on particular meaning for Hepworth is its population of ancient stone formations. Of Cornwall, Hepworth writes, “[H]ere, where people respect a stone in a field, one gets the direct impact of man’s spiritual reaction to sculpture” (quoted in Clayton, 123). This spiritual reaction harkens back to these stones as ritual sites, underlining Hepworth’s belief that sculpture prompts a change in behavior in its viewer, cultivating a contemporary kind of ceremony. Additionally, the formal inspiration of these stones can be seen in such pieces as Hieroglyph, which resembles a neolithic structure. The exhibition makes this resemblance explicit, displaying a copy of a 1937 issue of Circle magazine, in which Hepworth’s article is illustrated by a photo of Stonehenge taken by Walter Gropius and Carola Giedion-Welcker.

For many artists at the mid-century, including Hepworth, these stones stood as testament that ruin is not the end of a civilization. In her wartime poem “R.A.F.,” H.D. connects “the stone-walls, prehistoric circles / and dolmens” of Cornwall to the “stone thresholds” of Greece and Karnak; thinking of Stonehenge, she concludes “we will be saved yet.”[5] The astonishing capability of these monuments of ancient civilizations to endure and impress themselves on the surviving human population became a hopeful symbol when surveying the ruined streets of London. Likewise, in her review of Bill Brant/Henry Moore at the Hepworth Wakefield, Beryl Pong points to the importance of Stonehenge and “ancient geology” to Brandt and Moore as “a way of understanding nationhood as timeless and enduring, acting as a palliative against the geopolitical events of the 1940s and 50s.”[6]

Interestingly, in the 1950s Hepworth also turned to ancient Greece, designing the set and costumes for the Old Vic’s 1951 production of Electra. The play marked an attempted return to pre-war normalcy: the Old Vic Theatre was damaged in 1940 during an air raid, and with the building restored, the company sought to return to their habit of staging Greek plays. However, Electra was also a subtle reminder of the times, as the play is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War. Photos of the production show how Hepworth played with received forms, simplifying Greek columns into a single pillar and emulating classical garments in brightly colored cloth. The exhibition also includes Hepworth’s sculpture of Apollo, her first work in metal (fig. 4). The shape suggested by the wire shifts as the viewer moves, or as the actor engages with it onstage. In the set’s temple of Apollo, the performers enacted the ritual inherent to Hepworth’s ideas of sculpture, bringing the piece to life through the human encounter.

Wire sculpture
Fig. 4. Apollo, 1951, in the production of Electra at the Old Vic. The Hepworth Photograph Collection. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness. Photograph by John Vickers

One underdeveloped aspect of the exhibit is Hepworth’s late work in the 1960s: her interest in the moon landing and her anti-nuclear activism are each covered in just a few works, accompanied by a video of her speaking in front of the United Nations during the unveiling of Single Form in 1964. With thematic connections to the rest of the exhibition underexplored, this final gallery felt more like an afterthought. Hepworth’s attention to form and landscape is complicated by the new accessibility of outer space, as well as the explosive possibility of the atom. This complex push and pull of scientific development in a world looking to the future, still charred by the past, is wholly consistent with an exhibit focused so much on modern transformations of past forms and human interventions into space; these links could have been made more explicit by the curator.

In 2023, in a period of economic downturn and social crisis in Britain – replete with strikes, food shortages, and rising inflation – there is a certain unintentional cruelty mixed with optimism in a retrospective of Barbara Hepworth. She was prolific and determined, sketching in the dark behind her black-out curtains. This image should feel inspirational, but the notion of ‘Blitz spirit’ has been invoked and abused during the pandemic to put the burden of public safety on citizens rather than their government. That being said, Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life reflects a contemporary attention to the postwar period, alongside the Barbican’s 2022 exhibition, Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain, 1945 – 1965. In a ‘post’-pandemic reality, marked by immense loss of life as well as trust and security, it is only natural to connect ourselves to another period of national mourning, rationing, and limitations to find a way to respond to catastrophe. In her sculptures, Hepworth found a way to bring viewers together into an unconscious ritual that connects them to the endurance of humanity, in an ancient yet forward-looking tradition of constructing reality through gaps in stone.

Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life is on at the Towner Eastbourne until September 3rd, 2023. It ran at the Hepworth Wakefield (May 21st, 2021 to February 27th, 2021) before touring to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (April 9th to October 2nd, 2022) and Tate St. Ives (November 26th, 2022 to May 1st, 2023). The exhibition can also be viewed in its original installation at the Hepworth Wakefield online via Google Culture.


[1] Eleanor Clayton, “Online Course: An Introduction to Barbara Hepworth,” The Hepworth Wakefield, August 3rd, 2021, https://hepworthwakefield.org/whats-on/an-introduction-to-barbara-hepworth/.

[2] Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar,” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens: The Corrected Edition (New York: Knopf, 2015), 81.

[3] Hepworth quoted in Clayton, Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life (London: Thames and Hudson, 2021), 107.

[4] Clayton, Barbara Hepworth, 124; H.D., Bid Me to Live (London: Virago, 1984), 146.

[5] H.D., “R.A.F.,” in Within the Walls and What Do I Love?, ed. Annette Debo (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 202014), 171.

[6] Beryl Pong, “Changing Nationhood, Changeless Place: Bill Brandt/Henry Moore at the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery”, Modernism/modernity 5, no. 3, (October 2022) https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/pong-changing-nationhood