Although she’s compared most often to her friend, contemporary, and fellow British sculptor Henry Moore, Dame Barbara Hepworth carved out her own niche in the world of modernist sculpture, rising to an elite, international stature few other women sculptors reached in the twentieth century. Born January 10, 1903, Hepworth easily drew comparisons with Moore in works such as Mother and Child (above, from 1934), which reduces the human form to its essential elements and allows the eye and mind to penetrate the work through the openings so closely identified with Moore’s sculptures. Along with Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois, Dame Barbara helped forge a new acceptance of women sculptors in modern art.
When Dag Hammarskjold, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, died tragically in a plane crash in 1961, the U.N. commissioned Hepworth to create a memorial. Single Form (above, from 1962-1963) still stands outside the United Nations Building in New York City as an simple, austere tribute to Hammarskjold’s spirit. The openness of the man himself appears in the opening of the cape-like structure, which seems almost inviting in its desire to envelop you. Much public abstract sculpture seems more off-putting than inviting (think Richard Serra), but Hepworth paradoxically brings a softness to these hard structures. Usually, “softness” serves as code for “female” and, hence, “not as good as a man could do,” but in Hepworth’s case, her deft touch often conveys something very apt and beautiful in that appropriateness. Hepworth married the sculptor John Skeaping and later the painter Ben Nicholson, showing that she could more than hold her own in the world of male artists.
I find Hepworth’s Construction (Crucifixion)—Homage to Mondrian (above, from 1966) to be her most unique work. The colors pay homage to the works of Piet Mondrian, but Hepworth does more than honor that artist’s works. The red symbolizes the sun, while the white stands for the moon. The yellow circle stands for the head of Christ and, perhaps, a halo. As the description near the sculpture says, “The red, white and yellow colorings form a pattern evocative of pain, purity and deity.” Hepworth’s open framework not only suggests the crosses of Christ and the two thieves, but also creates a network through which time and space can flow. The two dimensionality of painted crucifixions gives way to the veracity of three-dimensional pain. Through her unique style, Hepworth brings a freshness to old forms and revitalizes the religious content. Sadly, Hepworth died horribly in a fire in 1975 as she was battling cancer. The Barbara Hepworth Museum carries on her memory today, which serves as an inspiration not only to women artists but also to those who struggle to maintain their faith in this modern world.