Collection Spotlight: Two Forms (Divided Circle), Barbara Hepworth

Title: Two Forms (Divided Circle)
Artist: Barbara Hepworth (British, 1903–1975)
Year: 1969
Medium: Cast bronze with brown patina
Size: 93 x 89 x 23 inches
Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Leigh B. Block, 1988.3.3

Barbara Hepworth made Two Forms (Divided Circle) at the end of a decade in which she dedicated herself to works that incorporated the viewer. The design of Two Forms (originally a shining, reflective bronze), with its slightly asymmetrical curved windows, provides the viewer with a lens through which to glimpse things anew. As Hepworth told her husband, Ben, “So much depends, in sculpture, on what one wants to see through a hole! …Maybe in a big work I want to see the sun or moon. In a smaller work I may want to lean in the whole … It is the physical sensation of piercing and sight which I want.”

Hepworth also imagined novel ways to present her sculptures, which were immobile and often considered inaccessible, to wider audiences. She was an early adopter of film and photography as a means to exhibit and circulate her work. Hepworth had spent the 1930s documenting her work in photographs and, with keen focus on the impact of light and perspective, was determined to communicate their weight and texture in the image.

In 1953, arts documentarian Dudley Shaw Ashton filmed her sculptures on the Cornish seaside, near her studio. Filmed in Technicolor, Figures in a Landscape was one of the first films produced by the British Film Institute’s Experimental Film Fund (EFF). It was founded after the BFI acquired the Telecinema, a theatre designed to screen stereoscopic cinema for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Hepworth had also been commissioned to make sculptures for the festival, contributing the imposing Contrapuntal Forms, made from Irish limestone, as well as Turning Forms, a motor-driven rotating sculpture.

Both the Festival of Britain and the EFF were invested in fostering an image of a modern and future-oriented postwar Britain. However, many of the Fund’s early films about artists focused on British heritage, highlighting the work of such figures as 18th-century caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. Indeed, Hepworth was one of notably few modernist artists to be the subject of an EFF film.

Figures in a Landscape features an unnerving score by the groundbreaking South African-British composer Priaulx Rainier. It is accompanied by a lyrical voiceover (written by poet Jacquetta Hawkes, and narrated by writer Cecil Day-Lewis). It is a quintessentially modernist commentary that is both wary and admiring of man’s mastery over nature. Its mode predates similar works by Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Resnais, Ebrahim Golestan and other auteurs of the 1960s (all of whom also garnered state sponsorship to make austere experimental documentaries). Ashton places Hepworth’s abstract, undulating figures against the natural landscapes that inspired them, and considers them alongside the mysterious Neolithic stones in the region. His imaginative camerawork gives the viewer a sense of how Hepworth’s sculptures enable new perspectives on their environments.

Scene from Figures in a Landscape, 1953

Two Forms (Divided Circle) has a prominent place on the Northwestern campus: many of us pass it routinely, and, despite its striking combination of circular forms and slicing angles, it may fade into the scenery for its daily passersby. Hepworth’s films provided me with a new way of seeing this sculpture, and of thinking about its relationship to the environment. Figures in a Landscape was the first of many short films dedicated to her work. Through these films, we can understand better the possibilities she imagined for her sculptures. In Bruce Beresford’s documentary short Barbara Hepworth at the Tate (1968), Hepworth insists on sculpture’s relationship to the natural world. She tells us, “I have often been called puritanical, or cold, or geometric, but it is the significance of spiritual and human responses to life around us which obsesses me at all times.”

Contributed by Simran Bhalla, Block Museum of Art Interdisciplinary Fellow 20192020


Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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