Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

It was a study in contrasts as I made my way across the courtyard of Somerset House where London Fashion Week was being hosted, and fashion models in glitzy outfits and extraordinary hats posed for photographers with big cameras.  I was headed for Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, a small but brilliant exhibition at the Courtauld, in which the relationship between the two artists is recounted through just 18 works, from the moment when Nicholson visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris early in 1934 to the time when the two went their separate geographical ways some seven years later. Continue reading “Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel”

The Hepworth Wakefield

I, the sculptor, am the landscape.  I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour.
– Barbara Hepworth, 1961

On our way back from the Yorkshire Dales, we made a detour south to Wakefield – to investigate the new Hepworth Wakefield gallery which opened in May. It’s the largest art gallery to be constructed in this country since the Hayward opened in London nearly 50 years ago.

The Hepworth stands by the River Calder, surrounded on two sides by water, and is approached over a new pedestrian bridge across the river.  It’s a striking, modernist building, formed from monolithic grey blocks, in stark contrast to its surroundings –  19th century industrial buildings, a gothic chapel and a boatyard.

But it’s when you go inside and enter the galleries that the architectural achievement becomes obvious.  The galleries are on the first floor: high-ceilinged rooms of brilliant white, lit by natural light from concealed skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows which look out over the rushing water of a weir.  It’s a superb showcase for the exciting art works on show.  As Richard Dorment commented in The Telegraph: ‘The Hepworth Wakefield is designed to serve the art, not the other way around’.

Barbara Hepworth was a local lass, born in Wakefield, and the Hepworth has been designed to accommodate the gift of a unique collection of over forty working models in plaster and aluminium from the Hepworth Estate, alongside the existing collection of Wakefield Art Gallery which includes a particularly strong group of works by twentieth century British artists. From the 1930s, and even in times of economic hardship, the Wakefield Gallery had an exceptional record as a determined buyer of contemporary British art. Three curators in turn – each of them tough characters – convinced sceptical Labour councillors that it was right to buy important works of modern art.  The result is a rich and varied collection of  6000 works of early 20th-century British art and 1200 watercolour views of Yorkshire, which the new Hepworth can now present in spacious and beautiful surroundings. The Hepworth will also become a major venue for temporary exhibitions in the North.

The Hepworth Wakefield has already been fantastically successful: the gallery hoped to attract 150,000 visitors in its first year, ut reached 100,000 within five weeks of opening (while the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, just down the road, broke all its own records in April with 45,000 visitors in that month alone).

See the gallery below for images of some of the sculptures and paintings mentioned (click on an image to enlarge it).

The first gallery introduces Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture, exploring the connection between material, method and subject matter. There are only five pieces, including  Figure (Nanjizal) from 1958 and Spring (1966). We learn from a video recording how the countryside was crucial to the artist, who as a young girl was taken by her father, a civil engineer, on his working trips across the county. In the extract from a BBC TV film made in 1961, she says:

I remember moving through the landscape with my father in his car and the hills were sculptures, the roads defined the forms. … Sculpture is the creation of a real object which relates to our human body and spirit as well as our visual appreciation of form and colour.

Barbara Hepworth: Two Forms with White (Greek), 1963

I was impressed by a display of a small group of ancient objects, abstract yet representational in form (below). They were collected by Hepworth and were a source of inspiration for her.  She had a particular interest in ancient art and sought its simplicity of form in her own sculpture.

The second gallery displays a selection of works from the Wakefield art collection – including pieces by leading British artists including Harold Gilman (Portrait of a Man, 1905), Roger Fry (Boats in a Harbour, 1915),  John Piper (Entrance to Fonthill, 1940), Henry Moore (Four Grey Sleepers,1941) and Patrick Heron (St Ives Churchyard 1950).  From its opening in 1934, Wakefield Art Gallery quickly developed to become one of the most forward thinking galleries of its time, with a reputation that belied its provincial status, collecting works by some of the most significant British artists of the twentieth century.

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1936

The next gallery does an impressive job of placing Hepworth in the context of her European contemporaries.  We are able to see how her ideas about sculpture were influenced by an awareness of artistic developments in Europe – in both sculpture and painting.  There are examples of work from the earlier generation of sculptors who had already broken away from the tradition of classical representation to explore new possibilities in the simplification of form – artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (represented here by the plaster relief Wrestlers from 1914 and a lovely little alabaster statuette, Boy, 1913) and Jacob Epstein (his solid, heavy Doves of 1914).  Gallery notes explain how these sculptors influenced Hepworth and Henry Moore through their development of direct carving, a sculptural principle of truth to materials whereby the sculpture’s form is dictated by the shape, density and the integral markings of wood grain or stone.  Henry Moore is represented by Reclining Figure (1936, above), his response to seeing a plaster cast of a Toltec-Maya sculptural form, the Chac Mool.  The reclining figure was to have a profound effect upon Moore’s work, becoming the primary motif of his sculpture.

A Chac Mool stone statue, Yucatan, Mexico.

On the surrounding walls of the gallery are examples of paintings by members of the inter-war European avant-garde that helped move Hepworth towards abstraction. Hepworth made repeated visits to Paris and she lived there for several years with Ben Nicholson, her second husband, having gone there specifically to learn about abstract art. She befriended artists such as Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp and Jean Hélion.  In 1934 the avant-garde group Unit One, of which both Hepworth and Nicholson were members, presented their first exhibition in London, coinciding with the publication of Unit One: the Modern Movement in English Architecture, Painting and Sculpture, edited by Herbert Read, to which Hepworth contributed an essay.

Paul Nash, Kinetic Feature, 1931
Paul Nash, Kinetic Feature, 1931

Several of the Unit One painters are represented here: Ben Nicholson by1933 and June 1937, Paul Nash by Kinetic Feature 1931, Piet Mondrian by Composition C (no. 111), Winifred Nicholson by Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteuil and John Piper by Forms on a White Ground.

Barbara Hepworth: Mother and Child, 1934

At the centre of this gallery is the small piece Hepworth made in 1934 entitled Mother and Child (above)  in which Hepworth, for the first time, created an object based on two separate forms that draws as much attention to the air within the sculpture as the space around it.  The writer and artist Adrian Stokes wrote of this:

The stone is beautifully rubbed.  It is continuous as an enlarging snowball on the run;  yet part of the matrix is detached as a subtly flattened pebble.  This is the child which the mother owns with all her weight, a child that is of the block, yet separate, beyond her womb yet of her being.

The next gallery, Hepworth at Work, explores Hepworth’s studio environment and her working practice.  Tools and materials on display (above) were Hepworth’s own and have been drawn from her second studio in St Ives, the Palais de Danse. There is a step-by-step reconstruction of the bronze-casting process, photographs of works in progress and four specially commissioned films containing archival footage of the artist in her studio.

The tools a sculptor uses become his friends, and they become intensely personal to one; the most precious extensions of one’s sight and touch.
– Barbara Hepworth, 1961

Barbara Hepworth in her studio

The adjoining gallery introduces The Hepworth Family Gift, a unique collection of Hepworth’s working models that will be on permanent display at The Hepworth Wakefield. These represent the first stage of the creative process and offer an invaluable insight into her practice and her approach to working with plaster (see photo at top of this post).

There are pictures, newspaper cuttings and prototypes of some of her best-known sculptures, including the aluminium, 19-foot Winged Figure (1963), commissioned for London’s John Lewis department store. There are versions in wood and bronze of Chun Quoit, the inspiration for the Single Form that was unveiled outside the United Nations building in New York in 1964. Single Form was Hepworth’s largest and most important public commission, and helped to seal her international reputation. She was approached to undertake the project in memory of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in a plane crash in September 1961 (coincidentally I’d just been reading about the circumstances of his death in this Guardian article).  Hepworth was a friend and admirer of Hammarskjöld, who in turn loved and collected her work. He felt that her Single Form sculptures in particular embodied the spirit of the United Nations. Immediately after his death, Hepworth made the bronze Single Form(Chun Quoit) which she re-interpreted at over six metres in height for the United Nations.

Single Form being hauled into position at the UN

Single Form was installed in the plaza outside the United Nations in June 1964. At the unveiling ceremony Hepworth said:

Throughout my work on the Single Form I have kept in mind Dag Hammarskjöld’s ideas on human and aesthetic ideology and I have tried to perfect a symbol that would reflect the nobility of his life, and at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.

This is a great art gallery.  Michael Glover wrote of the Hepworth in The Independent:

And what a museum it is. All the galleries, each distinctively shapely in a quirky way, are on the first floor of the building, and the fact that they follow the curvature of the river means that the museum is able to profit – and be symbolically enhanced – by the presence of rushing, raging water just beneath its windows.

The museum tells its story fully and intelligently. We begin with a display of major works. We then pass through a gallery which dissolves Hepworth in the two- and three-dimensional works of some her British contemporaries. She then plays a significant role in a gallery devoted to the European influence upon British sculptural practice, with significant loans from Tate and other institutions so we can compare British modes of abstraction, painted and sculpted, with works by Mondrian and others.

Then we pause for a gallery of pure didacticism. We examine objects from Hepworth’s studio – her badly punished work bench, her bradawl, adze and gimlet. Silent films – the screens are embedded (with great sensitivity) into the wall – show her at work, and the fact that the films are silent means that there is no irritating noise seepage from room to room.

Next up is Gallery 5, the pièce de résistance of the enterprise, in which the largest and most significant plasters are on display and the window space expands in size, as if to mirror the enormity of the three-dimensional works. We feel that she is just about to walk in, hair in headscarf, axe in hand.

Antony Gormley has said:

The Hepworth Wakefield will become a place of pilgrimage for all lovers of sculpture and now with the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, Yorkshire will be a place of inspiration for all.


A tour of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery

The Gift at The Hepworth Wakefield

Barbara Hepworth: The Hepworth Family Gift


Ben Nicholson’s Cornwall

BBC4’s documentary, The Art of Cornwall, explored how the small colony of artists in St Ives became as important as Paris or London during a golden creative period between the 1920s and 1960s. The central focus of the film was on Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – the latter first visited St Ives in 1928 when he discovered the mariner and primitive painter, Alfred Wallis.  The programme also examined how a younger generation of artists, such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, were also influenced by the Cornish landscape.

Nicholson and Hepworth were central figures in the thriving modernist art scene in 1930s London. Nicholson had begun his career painting landscapes and still lifes, but inspired by Mondrian, gradually turned to abstract art.  With the outbreak of war in 1939, recently married to Hepworth and with three young children, Nicholson reluctantly decided to leave London for the safety of Cornwall.  As the couple drove to the end of their road in Hampstead, they noticed Mondrian standing on the corner. They pulled over, rolled down the window and begged him to join them. He refused: he hated the countryside and anything green. Nicholson once recounted how Mondrian, noticing the leaves of a chestnut tree just visible through the skylight of Nicholson’s Hampstead studio, shook his head in disapproval and said: ‘Too much nature’.

When he first arrived in Cornwall, Nicholson went on with the white reliefs that he had been making in London.  They were made in the spirit of quietness and composure that Nicholson had admired in Mondrian’s studio. In St Ives, however:

Outside his Cornish studio the world must have seemed exceedingly disorderly: most days the sky going by at a ttremendous pace; the sluicing of waves and exploding of breakers, that endless pitiless tugging at the headlands by the sea; prevailing winds, quoits and stone hedges; the underworld of tin lodes; the hardship of it all, generastion after generation; harbours, like churchyards, bobbing with coffins.  Only very slowly did this have an effect on what he was doing.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

But the landscape did have an effect, modulated through his abstraction.  In addition, the film suggested, Nicholson turned to landscapes in order to earn a living during the war years. Paintings from the 1940s often show a landscape observed through a window with still-life elements in the foreground (below and top).

Landscape by itself is meaningless, but it works on our feelings in profound ways, arousing in us a sense of ourselves in relation to the outside world. What does it feel like to stare up at the night sky or to confront a mountain?  A picture which mimics the appearance of natural phenomena will miss the point, not just of their essential nature, but of ours too.  Instead, some equivalent has to be found: an equivalent of the way in which they act upon our sensibilities.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

In 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) below, the still life of cups and vessels of the foreground interact with the far-reaching landscape stretching away towards the distant sea.  This work was completed in 1945 with the addition of the union jack as a gesture to celebrate V.E. Day and the end of the war.

These landscapes, with their primitivist style, reflect the influence of Alfred Wallis, whose work Nicholson had first encountered in St Ives in 1928. With fellow-artist Christopher Wood, Nicholson had chanced upon Wallis, seeing him painting through the open door of his cottage. As Nicholson later described it, they:

passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall… We knocked at the door and inside found Wallis.

Alfred Wallis had spent most of his working life as a fisherman. He claimed to have gone to sea aged nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland in Canada. In 1890 he moved to St Ives where he became a marine scrap merchant. He began painting at the age of 70 ‘for company’ after the death of his wife.  Wood and Nicholson saw in his unconventional paintings an authentic, expressive vision, and a freshness and immediacy they aspired to in their own work.

Wallis regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences – he said he painted ‘what used to be’. His principal subjects were ships at sea, especially the working sail ships that had disappeared during his lifetime, and the St Ives townscape and the countryside immediately surrounding the town.  He didn’t use traditional linear perspective, instead arranging his subjects in terms of relative importance – the main subject of a painting would be the largest object, regardless of where it stood in physical relationship to its surroundings.

Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew was being replaced by steamships. As he put it, his subjects were ‘what use To Bee out of my memery what we may never see again…’ [Wikipedia].   Having little money, Wallis improvised with materials, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes using a limited palette of paint bought from ships’ chandlers.  Two Boats (above) is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid, while The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach (below) was painted on the back of a printed advertisement for an exhibition.  It is a view of St. Ives in which the elements are rearranged so that they depart from strict topographical accuracy. It shows the promontary at St. Ives known as ‘The Island’, part of Porthmeor Beach (one end of which adjoins the Island), and Porthmeor Square.

After the war, though Nicholson returned to abstraction, he continued to paint the Cornish landscape. Window in Cornwall and November 11 (Mousehole) (below) were both painted in 1947.

The two etchings of St Ives rooftops (above) were made in the 1960s, overworked by hand by Nicholson in pencil and gouache.   June 11 1949 (Cornish Landscape) (below) is one of a small group of compositions depicting farms near Halsetown, above St Ives. The building in the work is Chytodden Farm, near Towednack. An inscription written by the man who came to dominate the St Ives group in the post-war period, Patrick Heron, on the back of the composition – ‘Towednack’ – confirms the location of the view that Nicholson captured.

At the close of the programme the presenter, Dr James Fox descended into the bowels of the Tate where an assistant hauled out from storage the huge Patrick Heron painting, Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian (above) – perhaps the most arresting moment in the documentary.

Patrick Heron was born in Leeds in 1920 into a family of uncompromising nonconformism. His father was an art lover, socialist and pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, while his mother, too, was a pacifist and of fiercely independent spirit, with a passionate eye for the natural world.  Heron was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, a founder member of CND, and an active conservationist. He hated with a passion the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s, and refused a knighthood when it was offered by Margaret Thatcher.

In 1925 the Heron family moved from Leeds to Newlyn, where Patrick’s father ran a textile business. Patrick’s early years in Cornwall were idyllic: he was influenced deeply by the light, colour and landscape of what he called the ‘sacred land’ of his childhood. He never forgot childhood holidays that the family spent at Eagles Nest, the house above Zennor.

Patrick Heron The Boats And The Iron Ladder, 1947
Patrick Heron: Boats at Night 1947

In 1956, Heron was able to buy Eagles Nest, and moved in with his wife Delia and their young family.  From that time on, the house was the centre of his imaginative existence:

This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting.

Though his work now became non-figurative, it remained profoundly influenced by the landscape of West Penwith.  Among his first works of the period were the garden paintings, meshes of colour streaked and dribbled vertically on to the canvases.

Azalea Garden [below] was one of the paintings made in the first months at Eagles Nest… I referred to the series as ‘garden paintings’, since they certainly related in my mind to the extraordinary effervescence of flowering azaleas and camellias which was erupting all over the garden, amongst the granite boulders, at Eagles Nest when we moved down to begin our lives here. …The well-known crisis which confronted many British painters of my generation – I mean the moving over from overt figuration, however abstract, to overt non-figuration – overtook me at about this time.

‘The ancient valid response of the painter to the world around him is one of delight and amazement, and we must recapture it.’

The wild landscape around Eagles’ Nest inspired the floating boulder shapes and promontories of the large, Matisse-like abstract canvases that followed in the 1960s and 1970s – acrylics and prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes.

Patrick Heron and his wife Delia are buried in the churchyard at Zennor.  This photo was taken when we visited in 2006.

Patrick Heron designed the huge stained glass window that was installed in the entrance hall of the Tate St Ives gallery when it opened in 1993.

Patrick Heron Window for Tate Gallery St Ives 1992-93 (detail)

See also