Visual Art

Elemental, spiritual and human, Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures live in her legacies to contemporary artists. By Lisa Radford.

Barbara Hepworth: In Equilibrium

In a grey-white gallery, four framed abstract sketches hang on the wall behind a plinth holding a sculpture in a glass box. The sculpture is grey and a soft oval shape, with a piece scooped out of the middle and a green-painted hole left behind.
An installation view of the Barbara Hepworth: In Equilibrium exhibition, featuring Eidos.
Credit: Christian Cappuro

Le Corbusier’s book Toward an Architecture contains the famous quote “Une maison est une machine-à-habiter” (“A house is a machine for living in”). His words echo in my head as I walk onto the grounds of Heide Museum of Modern Art to see the Barbara Hepworth exhibition In Equilibrium, curated by Kendrah Morgan and Heide’s artistic director Lesley Harding. In the early summer light, the scent of eucalypts, the songs of birds and the chatter of families percolate through the air.

I find myself thinking about home as a site for pleasure and the production of knowledge, the cultural potential that emerges from curating art to provoke – rather than to solve – questions about our experiences. Echoes of conversations between John and Sunday Reed and their modernist mates of the Heide Circle, now mythic in scale, haunt me as I enter. The Reeds’ 1963 home, designed by McGlashan Everist and donated to the public in the 1980s, is the perfect architectural parallel for the presentation of this first survey of Hepworth’s work in Australia.

Born in Yorkshire in 1903, Hepworth studied at the Leeds School of Art and then at the Royal College of Art in London. She met her first husband, the artist John Skeaping, with whom she had a son, on a travelling scholarship to Italy. Hepworth later found a home in the artists’ community in St Ives, Cornwall, where she moved at the beginning of World War II with her second husband, the painter Ben Nicholson, and their triplets. Artist, mother, writer and political activist, Hepworth was in close correspondence with artists Naum Gabo and Piet Mondrian. She edited magazines and wrote, providing art historians and artists with a rich conduit to the thinking that informed her sculpturally driven practice.

Like her colleague and rival Henry Moore, Hepworth was a mentor and champion of younger artists, especially women. Unlike Moore, who was recognised early on, it was only in later life that she received her due acknowledgement and larger public commissions – the most famous being Single Form (1962) at the United Nations plaza in New York.

In an interview with art historian Cindy Nemser, Hepworth acknowledges with insightful humility the alienation between architects and artists. “If an architect says, ‘Will you do a sculpture for here?’ and I get an immediate reaction, I say ‘yes’,” she says. “If I don’t and I stay blank, I say ‘no’.” Underlying this remark is Hepworth’s desire for a relationship between the human and natural worlds through poetic, spiritual and elemental investigations in sculptural form. Political but undidactic, observant yet unrestricted by the visual, Hepworth’s writings reveal her intellect and empathy: “When we say that a great sculpture has vision, power, vitality, scale, poise, form or beauty, we are not speaking of physical attributes. Vitality is not a physical, organic attribute of sculpture – it is a spiritual inner life. Power is not man power or physical capacity – it is an inner force and energy.”

I’m excited to see Eidos (1947) again. Housed in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection and the hero image for the exhibition, this enigmatic ovoid – named after the Greek word for “form” – holds an elegant elemental and mystic quality. The white Portland stone presents an inner tear shape rendered in yellow paint. Simultaneously heavy and light, there is an optimism in this work that reveals a convergence of physical and spiritual worlds – it’s an egg from outer space, a theory in form.

Down the ramp next to the ticketing, the first glimpse of the exhibition is an encounter. Two large works, Two Forms in Echelon (1961), in polished, oxidised bronze, are framed by the west-facing central window of the gallery. Whether they are masks or solidified ova from an ancient beast, they quietly stare, antediluvian and other-worldly. Roles have been reversed: it is I who am their subject.

A corridor to my left contains historical images that document the artist’s life. I follow them, seduced by the artist as worker, and eventually am caught by a photograph featuring a single potted monstera on a stage behind a gathering, or troop formation, of Hepworth monoliths taken in the Palais de Danse, St Ives (1961). The monstera’s split leaves are as sculptural as the works I am about to see. Briefly distracted by the exhibition Animal Instincts, which presents Moya McKenna’s visceral painterly musings in the Tucker Gallery, I realise we are in dialogue, not just with sculpture but with the rhizomic lineages and multiplicity of forms explored during modernism.

The Palais de Danse image returns with striking similarity between the interior gallery of Heide III and that of the Palais – pitched roofs and narrow proportions, with walls painted a warm grey. I walk to the centre of the first exhibition hall. Eidos is here in arm’s reach to my left. Hepworth’s ovoid and pierced forms gather silently. Plinths in the same grey, here textured, host bronze, stone, plaster and wood forms in conference with each other, in conference with us.

Art historian Arie Hartog points out that form as symbol was close to the heart of “modern art minus the avant garde”, emerging from an interest in psychoanalysis. His hypothesis is that the symbolic potency of Hepworth and Moore’s sculptures lies in their synthesis of a large number of intelligible images as composite form.

Inside the gallery I am simultaneously awed and frustrated. The museum necessities of loans and insurance means art that was made to be touched is now frozen in capitalism’s cultural logic, isolated in four-millimetre perspex. Hepworth’s attempts to build and rebuild space by hand are mummified. The experience of the feeling and breathing Hepworth is interrupted by reflections reminiscent of lockdown laptop screens.

The beautifully hypnotic digitised 16-millimetre film Figures in a Landscape (1953), projected in the south-west corner of the gallery, documents Hepworth’s life in and around the coastal shire of St Ives, montaging her studio with Stonehenge, local cosmologies and a glimpse of the Egyptian sculpture that was formative to her thinking. The waves of Cornwall lap around Eidos – sculpture in an expanded field.

I may be looking at Hepworth but I am lost in the legacies I find in the community of artists with whom I exist. For Hepworth and her friends, abstraction was a means of regenerating from the traumas of war and fascism. Elemental, spiritual and human, her work births a modernist vitalism that is present today in Nick Selenitsch’s Mondrian-line painted kickboards, now on show in Australian Crawl at Savage Garden. It’s there in Noriko Nakamura’s emergent animisms in hand-carved limestone monoliths, Karen Black’s totemic collection of female forms in the work Gathering (2016), Anna Varendorff’s semicircular, powder-coated, tubular vases, and Mary Heilmann’s life paintings – sea and surface – the three pink squares framed by black: love, death and love of painting.

A sense of mourning hits as I leave – perhaps it’s the warm, grey tones and heavy curtains of the exhibition design or the container-cum-coffins that house Hepworth’s forms. Next door, Heide II’s modernist limestone building houses the exhibition wHole, curated by Melissa Keys. Hepworth’s “about nothing except love” is living here, in the conversations between contemporary art and Hepworth and her peers.

Using Hepworth’s revolutionary piercing and hollowing of stone to kick off a conversation with the elemental, cosmological and spiritual possibilities artists find in form and material, wHole reimagines Arie Hartog’s multiplicity of symbolic images. I find it in the drone observations of Afghanistan refugee camps in Rushdi Anwar’s 18-minute film Re-frame ‘Home’ with Patterns of Displacement (2019). Norma Redpath’s Ovoids dot the gallery, alongside Ricky Swallow’s punctured cardboard remnants cast in bronze mirror and Lucio Fontana’s infamous Spatial Concepts (1964-1965).

I find Nakamura here. Emptiness (2022) is a sculptural installation comprising three carved and stacked limestone rings beside six carefully scattered and disembodied ponytails of the artist’s hair. These are attached by strings to another palm-sized ring that is embedded inside a larger ring. These Hepworth-esque, animistic ovoids echo the material of the building and the spirit and ritual of the world beyond the window-wall that frames it. I can’t imagine Nakamura’s work coffined in museum perspex. This is the living culture that is animated by Heide’s home-as-museum.

Barbara Hepworth: In Equilibrium is showing at the Heide Museum of Modern Art until March 13, 2023.


EXHIBITION A Leakage of Wholes

Metro Arts, Brisbane, until December 22

DANCE Garabari

Arts House, Melbourne,  until December 10

MULTIMEDIA Adrián Villar Rojas: The End of Imagination

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until mid-2023

EXHIBITION Sera Waters: Future Traditions

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until April 16

VISUAL ART Melly Frank: Serene Stone

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart,  until January 28



Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until December 4

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 3, 2022 as "Staying alive".

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