Donald Short is an artist working in the UK

Universal: Art holes versus Le Penseur

This article originally appeared in the Times Education Supplement in 2006 and was accompanied by suggested teaching schemes through the Key Stages.

Created in 1932-33, Seated Figure from the Tate Britain collection, by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, is an essay in aesthetic taste between the wars. Sculpted directly from a piece of wood using a chisel and hammer, it was created using carving skills previously employed by past-masters such as Michelangelo and therefore embodies a tradition that goes back to the Greeks. Where its radicalism lies is in its form.

Seated Figure doesn’t so much resemble a seated figure, as it is suggestive of one. Shoulders, a leg with an arm resting on the knee, the remnant of another arm and what looks like a neck, but nothing that could clearly be called a head. It is therefore an abstraction, an attempt to record something that is sparse on detail or obvious meaning. If there is a meaning, it is supposed to be universal; not a seated figure, but all seated figures embodied in one grand expression that avoids sentiment or any reference to history.

Fifty years earlier, the French sculptor, Pierre Rodin (1840-1917) created his own Mr. Universe, entitled Le Penseur . The Rodin is also a seated figure, his chin resting on one arm he is deep in thought. There are enough similarities in the basic form of these two works to suggest that if you were to throw Le Penseur into the sea to be battered and churned for fifty years, before being washed up with the sea glass, shells and drift wood – its form now broken and eroded by the forces of nature – the result might look like Hepworthís Seated Figure. The same thinker, but this one reflecting on a new age; one that was still coming to terms with the impact of the Great War and therefore open to fresh ideas.

At the time Barbara Hepworth made this work, one of the most influential of these new ideas was Surrealism. Surrealism was a quintessentially European movement combining theatrical flare with intellectual navel gazing that, for all its highbrow claims about subconscious truth, was really just an excuse to make some truly whacky art during difficult times. Surrealism set many artists on a voyage towards the abstract and some of the best work is sculpture. It was during a trip to Paris in the early 1930s, with her husband the painter, Ben Nicholson, that she met one of the leading artistic figures of the Surrealist movement, Jean Arp (1887-1966), as well as the sculptor, Constantine Brancusi (1876-1957). Both men had a lasting impact on her work.

Brancusi and Arp’s work unlocked the expressive potential of what became known as organic form: forms that originated in nature. This simplification of form brings with it an expressive quality clearly seen in the smooth curves, peaks and troughs of Seated Figure. Hepworth;s own important contribution to organic sculpture was to punch a hole in the form, as is seen under the right arm of Seated Figure, thereby creating a negative space that complements the sculptural mass. This idea first appeared in her sculpture of 1931, Pierced Form and was later developed, notably in Pelagos, 1946 (Tate Gallery, London). The ‘hole’ remained an important motif in her work right up to her death forty years later.

Interestingly, for those studying design, Hepworth’s influence was surprisingly far reaching. By the 1950s, when she was at her peak, organic form was not just the house style of budding sculptors but designers too. An umbrella stand of 1954 by the Italian designer Antonia Campi (b.1921) bares a very strong resemblance to the work of Barbara Hepworth.

Seated Figure therefore not only embodies a new direction in British sculpture but also holds the key to the origins of the playful design of the 1950s. It was a ‘style with style’ that would find an industrial application in just about everything from dresses to coffee tables.

Jun 26, 04:09 PM by Donald Short