Isn’t that title an oxymoron? How can something, that is by its very essence stationary, solid, immobile and monumental, be lively? It can be, but can it be lively? Yes, sculpture can be! Let me show you! When I sat contemplating Henry Moore’s piece Knife-Edge 2, recently, I saw how the sun cast shapes and shadows differently around the sculpture depending on the time of day and if it was cloudy or fine.
I was thinking more about this, especially in connection with Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure(1963), commissioned by, and installed on the John Lewis shop in Oxford Street/Holles Street. A flat sheet of metal has a front and a back, but her work has an inside and an outside because of the curves she created in the material. Not only that, but because there are also shaped spaces in the ‘wings’, a ‘through’ space is created. There are also steel rods that have a radiating effect – crisscrossing each other in a way that reminds me of childhood embroidery. Those spokes also give a certain sense of dynamism to the piece. All these things taken together give a liveliness to the whole sculpture itself, but what takes that liveliness and elevates them into a whole new dimension, is the play of light on the figure. The shapes and reflections of the light within the sculpture are so lively, but even more so when the strong light of the sun plays those patterns on the walls: the facade becomes a cinema – albeit fleeting and temperamental. But enchanting – precious, not least because of its transitoriness. It is no sundial – nothing as regular or as instrumental or as institutional as that. No, it is play, caprice, timeless, captivating: but it cannot be captured and remain alive – no more than a butterfly could.
When I went to the exhibition Out There: Our Post-War Public Art, in Somerset House, London, recently it alerted me to a whole host of sculptures I had never heard of nor ever knew existed – and is what prompted me to write these blog pieces. At the exhibition, Barbara Hepworth’s John Lewis sculpture was mentioned, so I thought I would walk across and see it. A few busy streets away, and there it was! I would have to wait for a different time of day for the sun to shine strongly through the wings, but I got the impression. It’s marvellous – but it does require you to lift your head up from the pavement, the jostling crowd or the mobile phone, to see it!
And over the last little while I have found some of her other works – one standing outside Tate Britain, and one in Holland Park from a few months ago (I don’t know its name, but I took photos of it and spent a long time touching it, it was so beautiful, and didn’t realise then that it was by her!). And there is a portrait of Barbara in the National Portrait Gallery. In the summer, a trip to the Tate, St Ives, Cornwall, where she lived and worked is definitely on the agenda!