Barbara Hepworth
Written By karibu .

The sculptor who opened up the world.

The figures stand like sentinels on the hillside, both speaking about the landscape and speaking to it. Every form has been pierced by the sculptor. Through the spaces these holes will make you spy glimpses of the world around. The leaves changing colour on the trees, grass slick with dew, and if you bend down you can catch the other sculptures jutting out into the grey sky.

This hill in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the only place outside of the USA that you can see all of the sculptures that comprise Barbara Hepworth’s The Family of Man (1970). It was one of the last major works she completed before her death and as such stands in the place of last words, a final message. Barbara herself described the work of her final years as ‘a fulfilment of my youth’. Just like the strings she pulled taut over the hollows of her works, she was finally gathering the threads of her life.

That tension between continuity and maturity is reflected in the figures at the park. From Young Girl at the bottom of the hill through to Bride and Bridegroom and eventually Ultimate Form, the forms grow more sophisticated as the sculptures mature up the hill. But these gathered threads are more than personal.

The Family is a collective and so the journey is not just individual but communal. And Barbara’s community was not limited. She opened herself up to the world around her and invited it into communion with its neighbours. The sculptures are as much in conversation with the visitors as with the hill. And this dialogue expands the world of all of its participants. You cannot observe a Hepworth sculpture without also being pulled into its context, the physical and spiritual spaces it inhabits.

The Family is both a communal space and a lesson in how to exist in those spaces. ‘Wander round the garden alone’, she used to tell visitors to her Trewyn studio in St Ives, ‘Let the works look at you and they’ll speak to you.’ The important thing is to listen as much as to be heard. For this reason, Barbara wanted the sculptures to be explored by touch as well as sight. Visitors cannot get away with just passively observing, they have to open themselves up as much as the sculptures.

This was Barbara’s gift. A world that promised to open itself up to you, if you could open yourself up enough to listen.