There is a conflict being played out in the Hepworth Museum. The entrance space is occupied with a display on Barbara Hepworth’s life, each major step in the process of her growth as an artist expalined and illustrated. It was a process of discovery and loss, the apparent permanence of her sculpture contrasting the transient nature of her relationships and life, which ended in a fire in her studio.
The museum occupies the house and studio where Hepworth lived and worked. It is a clean and crisp white space, laid out much like a gallery of her work, but there is still much evidence of the artist – pieces of her furniture, her mantelpiece still in place.
(As I write a middle aged Yorkshire couple have stormed through the main gallery, looking cursorily at the pieces whilst muttering ‘It escapes me’. Likely not an uncommon response to Hepworth’s abstratct style. They do not give a lot away, and there is very little or no meaning for the mind to latch on to. But if you can manage to stop thinking for a while and let your consciousness take them in, their real beauty starts to appear. Watching the other visitors is always half the fun of galleries and museums for me. The responses to art are as revealing as art itself, from the knowing nods to the angry frowns.)
The sculpture garden itself is a zen Buddhist paradise. Hepworths monolithic forms are so fascinating to the eye that a few moments gazing brings on a trance like state of wonder, accompanied by the ever present screaming of the gulls that saturates St Ives.
(The gulls are in no way adorable, being thuggish creatures that only let the human population alone because we are bigger than they are. If I ever need to put myself in the mind of a pterodactyl, I will think of sea gulls.)
All of the sculptures have large signs nearby shouting PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH. All of the comments left by children say such things as, ‘Dear Miss Hepworth. I love the scultures but was terribly tempted to climb all over them!’ and it’s not just the kids, wherever you look you see hands being consciously restrained from touching the appealing stone and bronze surfaces.
At the far end of the garden is Hepworth’s main sculpting studio, which has been preserved untouched for over 30 years, although from it’s cleanliness we guess someone hoovers out the cob webs now and again. The artist might have just stepped out for a few moments to by a new chisel.
But how long can these sculptures, finished and half finished, remain preserved? What catastrophic event will bring time back into this space? Or will it be a thousand small events, each chipping away another piece of the whole. The life that created these sculptures was as transient as all lives. They came from that place of imagination where nothing is the same from one moment to the next. And yet here we all are, desperately trying to cling on to these things.
Which might all just be a roundabout way of saying I think they should give over a few of the big sculptures for kids to climb on.