Seated in style

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
Barbara Hepworth's sculptures had a far-reaching influence. Donald Short explores her simplicity of form

Barbara Hepworth


Born and bred in Yorkshire, like the more illustrious sculptor, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth attended the Royal College of Art. Theirs was a lasting professional relationship; their work bears many similarities. In 1939 she settled in St Ives, where her studio is now a museum. Married to the painter, Ben Nicholson, with whom she was a member of Abstract-Creation, the group founded by Jean Arp, she died in a fire in her studio.

Created in 1932-33, "Seated Figure" by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth is an essay in the aesthetic taste of the period between the wars. It is carved directly from a piece of wood (lignum vitae) with a mallet and chisel, using skills learnt during a trip Barbara Hepworth made to Italy. In that sense it embodies a tradition of sculpture stretching back to the Ancient Greeks; its radicalism lies in its form.

It doesn't so much resemble a seated figure, as suggest one. Shoulders, a leg with an arm resting on the knee, the remnant of another arm and what looks like a neck; nothing that could clearly be called a head. It is an abstraction: an attempt to record something sparse on detail or obvious meaning. If there is a meaning, it is of the kind called "universal", showing not a seated figure, but all seated figures embodied in one grand expression avoiding sentiment or any reference to history.

Fifty years earlier, the French sculptor Pierre Rodin (1840-1917) had created his own Mr Universe, entitled "Le Penseur" or "The Thinker".

Rodin's is also a seated figure; with his chin resting on one arm, he is deep in thought. There are enough similarities in the basic form of these two works to suggest that if you were to throw "Le Penseur" into the sea to be battered and churned for 50 years, before being washed up with the sea glass, shells and driftwood, its form now broken and eroded by the forces of nature, the result might look like Hepworth's "Seated Figure". The same thinker, but this one reflecting on a new age; one still coming to terms with the impact of the First World War and open to fresh ideas.

At the time Barbara Hepworth made this work, one of the most influential of these new ideas was Surrealism. Surrealism was a quintessentially European movement combining theatrical flair with intellectual navel-gazing that emphasised the importance of the subconcious mind in conjuring extraordinary images. Surrealism set many artists on a voyage towards the abstract; some of its best work is sculpture. It was during a trip to Paris in the early 1930s, with her husband Ben Nicholson, that Hepworth met one of the leading artistic figures of the Surrealist movement, Jean Arp (1887-1966), as well as the sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). Both men had a lasting impact on her work.

Brancusi and Arp's work unlocked the expressive potential of what became known as organic form: forms that originated in nature. The attraction was often the simplicity of these forms. Hepworth's own work is at times amoebic in its simplicity and the term "biomorphism" is sometimes used, forms that originate from simple organisms like amoeba. This simplification of form brings with it an expressiveness clearly seen in the smooth curves, peaks and troughs of "Seated Figure". Hepworth's own important contribution to organic sculpture was to punch a hole in the form, as is seen under the right arm of "Seated Figure", thereby creating a negative space that complements the sculptural mass around it.

This idea first appeared in "Pierced Form", her sculpture of 1931, and was later developed, notably in Pelagos, 1946 (Tate Gallery, London). The "hole" remained an important motif in her work right up to her death, 40 years later. Interestingly, for those studying design, Hepworth's influence was surprisingly far-reaching. By the 1950s, when she was at her peak, organic form was not just the house style of budding sculptors, but of designers too. For instance, an umbrella stand of 1954 by the Italian designer Antonia Campi (b.1921) bares a strong resemblance to Hepworth's work. "Seated Figure" not only embodies a new direction in British sculpture but also holds the key to the playful design concepts of the 1950s. It was a "style with a style" (that is, one with flair and originality) and its influence can still be seen today, most notably, perhaps, in the logo and design of the Sony Walkman "bean".


The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives, Cornwall Modern Sculpture: A Concise History, by Herbert Read (Thames and Hudson) The New Look. Design in the Fifties, by Lesley Jackson (Thames and Hudson)

* Barbara Hepworth's work can be seen in as part of a group show, Sixty Years of Sculpture, in the Arts Council Collection at the Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Leeds, until June 25.

Lesson ideas

Art and design

Collect natural forms such as rocks, shells and driftwood. Discuss their qualities and compare with "Seated Figure". Using a glue gun make a sculpture with beach finds.

Barbara Hepworth's public sculpture for Harlow New Town can be used as a starting point. Use photographs of the pupils' heads as a source for drawing. Pinpoint the key elements and begin a reductive process until the headshoulder drawings begin to take on an abstract appearance. From this, a three-dimensional work can be made in either clay or sculpted soapstone.

Make a digital image of the result, then using Photoshop transpose the sculpture image onto another photograph acting as a background. The front of the school would be ideal. Change scale, apply shadow and add a few admiring pupils for effect and hey presto! - you have a public sculpture outside the school.

Visit a museum to see Barbara Hepworth's work. Make primary source drawings. Use sources to investigate the origins of her style. Research the qualities of organic form by collecting driftwood and stones, as well images of things such as tree trunks and puddles. Using the figure as a starting point, begin a process of reduction that will result in a sculpture in soapstone or clay. In later work, the introduction of wire elements resembling the strings on a musical instrument might provide further scope for development.

Investigate 1950s design

and the influence of organicbiomorphic forms. Make visual links between objects such as Hepworth's sculpture and Campi's umbrella stand and along with other visual research, including primary source drawing, conceive an object of your own. This could take many forms but pottery, textiles and furniture would be most appropriate.

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