Updated: Jan 24
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Barbara Hepworth, a female modernist sculptor, created abstract forms from the beginnings of the 19th century up until her death in 1975. Hepworth’s work is particularly interesting when contextualised in predation of the 1960’s, when questions of gender had begun to come to fruition in the art world. In our current day and age, as we strive to subvert previous patriarchal conventions, art proves a powerful and emotive way to do so.
The Hepworth Wakefield’s new exhibition, in celebration of the gallery’s tenth anniversary, showcases some of Hepworth’s most memorable work. The exhibition includes newly discovered letters which, with the help of 21st century feminism, allows her work to escape the misogynistic gaze of her time – embracing Hepworth as the strong, assertive, and powerful artist she is. These letters offer a valuable insight into how Hepworth was both subject to, and tackled, 20th century gender expectations. Revisiting Hepworth’s work today is a strong reminder of the demand for a world in which art is not defined by the artist’s gender.
The way art is perceived is dependent on its social and cultural context. Therefore, there is no denying that the reception of Hepworth’s work between the 1930s and 60s was very different to how we respond to it today. During her career, Hepworth was in constant disagreement with how her work was being displayed by exhibitors— suggesting it was too feminine, lacking in any strength or power. Her work was haunted and undermined by her role as a woman. Henry Moore, her contemporary, labelled 1932 ‘The Year of the Hole’ when he started experimenting with creating space in his sculptures– an assertion that ignored the fact that Hepworth had pierced the form the year before, in 1931. Ultimately, as a female sculptor, working in a male dominated world, Hepworth was unable to escape the patriarchal standards and limitations of femininity – even her art could not be free from the male gaze.
The Wakefield’s exhibition recognises Hepworth’s influence and opinions on academic theory, including letters and extracts of her thoughts; she was particularly interested in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as well as Constructivist ideas. These scholarly influences were associated with masculinity in the 20th century, and so were not appreciated in Hepworth’s art. Not only will the exhibition free her from these confines, but its exploration into the limits of her male-dominated past offers an insightful review on how gendered stereotypes influence the reception of an artist’s work.
Figure 1. Barbara Hepworth, Three Forms, 1935
Whilst Hepworth did not tackle her own subjection to gender explicitly in her art, her work implicitly provokes a discourse surrounding the meaning of and differences between femininity and masculinity. She discusses the innately contrasting experiences of being a male and a female, particularly through the lense of motherhood. For example, her piece Three Forms 1935 [figure 1], has often been interpreted to be inspired by the birth of her triplets in 1935, representing the relationship between the three children.
Figure 2. Jenny Saville, Passage, 2004
A comparison can be made with the 21st century artist, Jenny Saville. Saville presents graphic representations of how the body, as a gendered landscape, has changed over time – including the depiction of an between-genders ‘transvestite’ [see figure 2], which challenges predated ideas of binary sex. Acknowledging how, for women, sex is intrinsically connected to her role as an artist, Saville admits she ‘wouldn’t make this work if [she] was a guy’.
Perhaps Hepworth’s work, though, was never meant to be a direct challenge of gender – instead, a representation of what it means to be a female, particularly a female artist, in an androcentric society. In her piece, Mother and Child 1934 [see figure 3], Hepworth portrays the confines and tensions of not only the female body, but that of the mother. The piece is especially evocative – a sculpture intentionally created to relate ‘to the anxieties, such as that of separation, that can exist within the mother-infant relationship’ (Gale and Stephens, 1999).
Figure 3. Barbara Hepworth, Mother and Child, 1934
Thus, Hepworth’s work highlights an equally important aspect of tackling gender divides within and outside of art: the necessity to create a space in which to celebrate, connect to or empathise with
the experience of motherhood and womanhood.
Hepworth’s work and the history it holds demonstrates the benefits of bringing artists from the past into the 21st century. Art is timeless, carrying both aesthetic value and use as a political tool, and transgressing the limits of time offers the opportunity to reflect on and tackle contemporary issues in our society.