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June 17, 2013

Barbara Hepworth's Figure for Landscape

  • Figure for Landscape outside Kunsthall Stavanger.

  • Barbara Hepworth in St. Ives.

  • Figure for Landscape on the stairs of Tate in London, 1968.

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By Hanne Mugaas

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Stavanger

Barbara Hepworth's sculpture Figure for Landscape has been on permanent view outside Kunsthall Stavanger's building since 1968. Here, Curatorial Assistant Heather Jones digs deeper into the life of Dame Hepworth and her work.

There are a couple of important things to keep in mind when talking about Barbara Hepworth’s 1961 sculpture Figure for Landscape, on view outside of the new Kunsthall Stavanger.

The first is that it is two and a half meters tall. This seems an obvious observation but its impressive physicality is difficult to fully understand when scrolling through the annals of google images. It needs to be experienced through all senses, the entire body of the viewer, rather than solely through the eyes. In a 1972 interview with British Pathe, Hepworth stated,

“I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you’re going to stand stiff as a ramrod and stare at it. With a sculpture you must walk around it, bend towards it, touch it, walk away from it.”

Hepworth insisted that the majority of her sculptures were made to touch and Figure for Lanscape is no different. Heavy and imposing were it not for the punctures and open spaces, Figure for Landscape suggests integration into a particular place rather than insertion. Though abstract and monumental in character, the sculpture extenuates rather than diminishes the human presence. Even when working large, Hepworth’s thoughts continually returned to the human relation and perspective to the sculpture. She not only made forms to look at, but ‘forms to lie down in, forms to see through’.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Barbara Hepworth was not only a talented sculptor but also a woman deeply immersed in the struggles of her time. She was a daughter, a friend, a mother, a wife whose life and work spanned nearly seven decades. Born in 1903, she sculpted Figure for Lanscape at the age of 53, having seen two World Wars, two marriages, and the death of one of her children. In the publication The War, Cornwall, and Artist in Landscape, 1939–1946, Hepworth went so far as to say sculpting was, to her, the most logical way to express “the intrinsic 'will to live”.

At the same time, it would be a severe disservice to simplify Hepworth’s work in terms of proto-feminist stereotypes. From an early point she was actively engaged in modernist artistic discourse, studying alongside contemporary and friend Henry Moore at Leeds School of Art and later at The Royal College of Art in London. She went on to exchange ideas with artists such as Brancussi, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Calder, among many others.

The title, Figure for Landscape, is explicitly referential and at the same time offers us vital clues into the heart of the sculpture. It is a figure, and yet, is clearly two figures, standing side by side, or perhaps one holding another. For Landscape: the sculpture was originally conceived as a figure in relationship to a landscape (or several – Hepworth actually made an edition of seven.) Others are placed outside the Tate Modern, San Diego Society of Arts, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and Exeter University.

Long before creating Figure for Landscape, Hepworth spoke about the relationship between landscape and figures as being vitally important to the shaping of her work. Figure for Lanscape was not merely created to be in landscape but for it. Hepworth was keenly attuned to the qualities of her materials; in this case, her use of bronze is deliberate. The sculpture was meant to be given to the landscape, exposed to the elements, rained on, oxidized, to be covered by snow and eroded by wind, and bear the marks of hands that have touched it. Unlike many present day sculptures erected in the name of public art, Figure for Landscape was designed to take on the materiality of the landscape around it and in turn, to add to the landscape its own vitality.

*note: Figure for Landscape (6/7) originally came to the Stavanger Kunstforening in 1968.

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