June 19, 2003
Keeping Barbara Hepworth in her place

Last night I watched a TV programme (On BBC1) about the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the best little clutch of photos of her work that I could find quickly being this one.

I enjoyed myself. We got the family history, the marriages and the divorces, the children (including – get this – triplets!!!), and lots of pictures of the sculptures and of Dame Barbara sculpting them. What a feisty old Dame – stubborn, deadly serious, and amazingly productive, decade after decade. I enjoyed the pictures of the sculptures, several of which I must myself have seen for real.

And then there were the photos, of Hepworth and her artist friends lolling about by the sea, discussing Socialism. She did some interesting pictures of National Health Service doctors doing an operation (and you got the impression that she valued their masked, and thus "faceless" quality, which turned them from individuals into a collective archetype).

Barbara Hepworth's early "inspiration" and "passion", of which much was made by compere Alan Yentob, was landscape and seaside rocks and pebbles. In Hepworth's hands this sometimes merged into forms suggestive also of human figures. Later she played about with colour, and her creations started to have insides and outsides, in different colours. Holes started to go through them. Strings like the strings of a harp or a piano join up bits of them. All very pleasing to look at, in a harmless, make-what-you-like-of-it kind of way.

And then they showed a picture of a big Barbara Hepworth outside the United Nations building in New York.

Whoooaaaarrrggghhh!!! A spasm of rage suddenly engulfed your blogger. The sneaky, mad, batty old bitch has seduced me into a state of neutrality concerning the public, abstract "sculpture" of the 1950 to 1980 era, which is one of the most horrible art atrocities of my lifetime.

You know the kind of rubbish I'm talking about. Huge dull skyscraper, with large, dull square in front of it, park benches to sit on if you're lucky, rubbish blowing about in the crazy breezes caused by the skyscraper, and plonked down in the middle of the square: a meaningless, far-too-big-to-ignore piece of bullshit "sculpture" that looks like it was helicoptered in by an evil cosmic prankster in the dead of night, and they haven't yet taken it away because it will cost a fortune to do that and they haven't yet worked out who has to do it.

What was happeningto me? I had been transformed by one dim old photograph from a maiden aunt nodding benignly at how "interesting" it all looked, into a Daily Mail reader, drunk at the wheel of a Ford Transit loaded with dynamite. Ease up Brian. Relax. It's only Modern Art. Don't get so angry. You're only Playing Into Their Hands.

Why was I so contentedly relaxed about small Hepworths in little art galleries or gardens, but driven crazy by big ones in front of famous skyscrapers?

It was because small Hepworths in galleries are in their proper place in the world, but big Hepworth's in city squares are not just getting above themselves, they are also getting in the way of something better.

There is something very ridiculous about Barbara Hepworth, and her "inspiration" and her "passion". Basically, what she spent her life doing, with huge labour, was doing something that for humans is immensely hard work, but which Mother Nature does without trying. I mean, seriously, what the hell is the point of making hundreds of bits of stuff "inspired" by the things that the sea does to stone? Surely the logical thing to do if this "inspires" you is to take photos, or go on walks and look at it all. But a life-time of making giant pebbles? Smacking away with your chisel at big lumps of stone for man-years on end, to create effects that the Atlantic Ocean can do without even being alive? This really is a human doing what humans are not built for. This is playing from weakness. This is us at our daftest.

Put it this way. Suppose that you observed not the sea shaping stone, but, say, some elephants manipulating some huge bits of wood, doing what they do best, which is move things about with their amazing, elongated noses. Suppose that this "inspired" you. Would it really make sense for you then to spend the rest of your life copying the elephants by pushing things about with your nose? Or perhaps by heaving bits of timber about with your arms, on account of your nose being so unsuited? You're never going to beat the elephants, any more than Barbara Hepworth is going to beat the sea.

When Hepworth sells one of her giant pebbles to someone who likes it and reckons it to be art, and who puts it in an art gallery for others who like the look of giant pebbles to come an gaze at, well, I've no problem with that. Hepworth's objects are an excellent example of something I've already written about here, namely "art", which if it hadn't been called art, would cause no annoyance whatever. Who could possibly object to a big pebble?

But when you take one of these giant I-wonder-what-that-is things and stick it in a serious, much populated urban public space, my patience suddenly snaps. Now, suddenly, I am being asked to take this giant piece of bric-a-brac seriously, and agree that it signifies something profound, something as profound as those "passions" that were swirling about inside poor old Barbara Hepworth's brain while she was carving the damn thing and making the surface go this way or that way for who the hell knows what reason. Now the lack of any shared or sharable meaning ceases to be quaintly picturesque, and becomes actively and intrusively offensive.

When I was a child, we used to go by car to Monmouthshire to visit the grandmother, who lived in a mini stately home. One of the highlights of the journey, if we went through the town of Monmouth itself, was to observe the statue of the great aviator and car salesman Charles Rolls in the town centre, holding up a model biplane. Now that was a statue. That meant something. Later I got to know the statues of London, my favourites being the ones outside the old War Office of Montgomery, Brooke and Slim, Britain's leading World War II soldiers.

Imagine the stink if any of these were taken away, and replaced by half a a ton of random Hepworth. Well, that's pretty much what did happen in the space outside the UN building.

Personally I despise the UN, but I'll agree that it is at least trying, approximately speaking, to do something important. Like the Hepworth object in front of it, it is occupying an important space in the world. So why was I so angry? Isn't a meaningless piece of junk in front of it just what I would have wanted in front of this vile operation? Well, yes, indeed. But what I was cursing wasn't that particular sculpture, so much as all the bits of junk in cities everywhere, where real sculptures (or real somethings) should have been instead. There could have been something that celebrated qualities or aspirations or achievements in a way that was clearly expressed and plainly visible – instead of just a blob of the silly and utterly uncommunicated "passions" of some stubborn old git like Barbara bloody Hepworth.

Happily, a happy ending to this story is even now unfolding. The meaningless lump style of sculpture has not been utterly defeated, but it has been driven out of these significant public spaces, back into the art galleries and gardens where it belongs, where it can be communed with by those who like that sort of thing but where it won't annoy the rest of us.

We are, in Britain, just at the beginning of a new golden age of public sculpture, heralded by the Angel of the North. This, to me, somewhat half-hearted figure has revealed, by the mere fact of its public existence, a huge fan base for public sculpture that is of something, that really says something and celebrates something, in this case, presumably, the rise of a new North of England from the rust and dust and mud of the old. The happy hubbub of talk that surrounds this somewhat banal but nevertheless appealing little figure, stuck up above the A1 just south of Gateshead, is in extreme contrast to the bitter and angry public silence by which all those Hepworth-style blobs were surrounded by when they were unveiled. And just like the architects before them, the sculptors have decided which response they prefer, and are lunging for public glory. Good for them.

Meanwhile, other lesser but still very appealing statues that actually communicate are popping up everywhere.

Thinking about this Hepworth business has told me is something that I hadn't quite grasped until now, which is that "Modern Art" is already in retreat. The meaningless lump style still dominates great swathes of "art", in the galleries, alongside the more recent and equally meaningless "hey! – take a look at what I just found" style. But it has been banished from real life. Now real life is elbowing its way back into the galleries.

For years I have longed to sink Modern Art with one killer phrase, like the Bismarck sinking the Hood. One day, I dreamed to myself, I would craft a meme as deadly as Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word". Now I am starting to feel twinges of the magnanimity that accompanies victory.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:47 PM
Category: Modern artSculpture