On offer at the Tate until next October is a retrospective exhibition on the work of Barbara Hepworth, titled ‘Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World’ the particular focus being her as an international artist. Part of the exhibition includes Dudley Shaw Ashton’s brilliant Figures in Landscape; Barbara Hepworth (owned by Bridgeman Footage), a fascinating look at Hepworth’s connection with the Cornish landscape as well as her process of creation.
The film was commissioned by the BFI Experimental Film Fund, one of the first ones it had backed . With narration by Cecil Day-Lewis and music by Priaulx Rainier, it is a merging of photography, music, art and poetry. Ashton’s intention was not to create a documentary; instead he wanted to explore the totality of Hepworth’s work and in doing so fully articulated the ideas that created her work. These ideas are perhaps best explored by highlighting a few key strands from the piece of film.
Her work basis itself around the chronology of the landscape; how wind, rain and man shaped the Cornish granite. It is in the first two minutes that Ashton provides snapshots of arches and caves; all formed by the wind and sea, subtly challenging the viewer to find the organic forms that inspired Hepworth. We are not presented with the first of Hepworth’s work until the fourth minute. Ashton does not depict the sculptures in a gallery but intsead places them in nature; the landscape that inspired Hepworth is needed as a backdrop to give them their intended meaning. Ashton matches the sculptures with the landscape, the interaction clearest when showing a wheel like stone formation before the camera zooms out reveals we have been viewing it through one of Hepworth’s sculptures. No longer are the pieces static, the viewer is engaging with them in their intended setting. Martin Gayford writes in The Spectator, ‘with Hepworth, the surroundings are critical’; this is made obvious from the beginning.
Over the top of the film Cecil Day-Lewis provides us with a poetic retelling of the story of the landscape and in particular the way that the rock has been moulded by man and nature. From the Christian churches to the tin miners and china clay diggers, they all worked the Cornish landscape and in turn Ashton uses a sculpture to defines each element. Until finally we are introduced to St Ives, the narration bringing us up to the present day, ‘St Ives with its boats and houses’. It is at this point Barbara Hepworth is first introduced; at first shots of just a hand and some eyes but the camera tracks back to reveal the St Ives harbour and the sculptor standing next to her piece of work.
Ashton at this point seems to shift his focus, from the sculpture to the sculptor and in particular looks at Hepworth’s Trewyn studio in Cornwall. Instead of looking at what is being produced he shows us how it is produced; the chiseling, the sawing and the carving. It is the tactility of Hepworth that is highlighted, in contrast to the natural ‘sculpting’ of the wind and sea.
Cecil-Day concludes his narration with a subtle juxtaposition, ‘nature claiming back wood and stone from the small plans of man’, against the carver who ‘cuts deeper with her seeing eye’. The power of nature is not challenged; instead the more precise, revealing hand of the sculptor is championed, it is the ability of man to create rather than natures random ability to form.
This work of art, for that is what it undoubtedly is, does not attempt to explain her sculpture or even draw precise conclusions as to her thinking. Instead Ashton simply guides the viewer, providing elements of suggestion, waiting for the observer to cultivate their own reaction, ‘he waits tranquilly for the beauty itself to bear witness to its truth’.
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