Looking forward to see this exhibition:
Such small carvings speak to a middle-class life which in 1930s London was still very much in the making. For Hepworth, its epicentre was the North London studio which, until German bombs exiled them to Cornwall, she shared with the painter Ben Nicholson. The show vividly conjures the studio’s crowded, exuberant self-confidence. Paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures, textile designs, collages: all the things they made invent a specific aesthetics of intimacy, a shared exploration of what it means to love and be loved, to feel close and yet distinct, to wish to enter the other and yet be kept out. Look for instance at Nicholson’s drawings of Hepworth peering into a mirror, or follow the evolving sign he found for her profile, and then watch for it in her sculpture, as a line chased into the surface – the body – of the stone. The erotic intensity is overwhelming, and to encounter the photograph albums each partner compiled (never before shown by their heirs) is to realise how far they went on the path of shared self-exploration, as if wishing to discover whether the boundary lines between lovers could be made over as a common language of form.
I don’t want to suggest that these collages and photographs overshadow the carvings they are based on. But they do make clear Hepworth’s concerns with her work’s possible worlds. Her tactic of putting two or three forms together (and sometimes more) also raises the question – or, better, solves the problem – of the company her sculpture should keep. Art critics usually have a lot to say about ‘internal relationships’ – what happens within a composition or frame. They find less occasion to notice that a work which materialises the physicality of relationship takes up a central reality of embodied existence, when two or three are gathered together, or when a single form stands alone. What happens within a Hepworth carving is always as important as what occurs around it. She cut deep into wood and marble, scooped out hollows within them, then strung their openings with an exactitude worthy of Apollo’s lyre. Is anyone surprised that music meant so much to her? Why was Bach her hero? Her answer is unnervingly cool: his ‘immense and neutral’ art, she wrote in 1933, was far ahead of its time. When one looks at the best of Hepworth’s work – Two Forms, or Pelagos, or Curved Form (Delphi) – a similar judgment, tinged with the same quiet confidence, seems right.