Three Speakers, One Message
I arrived late to the bowling lawn in Port Eliot Estate, one of Cornwall’s large inherited earldoms, due to the lack of professionalism of their press officer. I missed the opening remarks from the Director of the Tate Gallery, Sir Nicholas Serota and introduction from Chris Stephens, Lead Curator, Modern British Art at Tate Britain, presently running the retrospective of the subject of their talk, Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World 24 June – 25 October 2015.
That behind me I sat listening to a suave public relations machine from the Tate Britain talking about the single-minded British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Alice Channer, the preferred post-modern sculptor sitting between Sir Nicholas and Chris Stephens, did the required work of commenting on her idea of Hepworth’s Single Form, commissioned for the United Nation’s Plaza, New York, being vulnerable. It is in fact the largest public commission she ever created. Channer observed that Winged Figure, set on the side of the John Lewis store in Oxford Street, is in three pieces to mimic the structure of a corporate entity. Hepworth’s later bronzes she saw as an extension of human experience now people can picnic sitting against them. When she mentioned pieces change shape as you walk around them and seem to breath in and out, her anthropomorphism was complete. Hepworth herself said, “My works are an imitation of my own past and present.” No one mentioned this which is a shame because unpicking it would have been illuminating.
Chris Stephens excellently tracked her career accompanied by a slide show. He progressed through Hepworth’s life mentioning how she felt safe and embraced by the St Ives harbour. Although he said the lack of exhibitions of her work post her death since 1975 would never have happened had she been in the USA, we were left wondering why?
Maybe the question was an open one inviting the audience to accept she should have a greater reputation.
Hepworth, and her second husband Ben Nicolson, came to St Ives to escape London in the Blitz. They stayed because through Nicolson’s, Herbert Read’s Patrick Heron’s and Bernard Leach’s writings the St Ives School prospered. There is a wider reason why she dropped off the radar. Pop Art dethroned the St Ives School and her own character cut people off who might have taken her up, but they didn’t accept her and her aesthetic orthodoxies as brilliant.
The desire of this discussion with only three questions taken from the floor, was to promote the idea of Hepworth as an international star not the reality or her obsession with herself. Ego kills the artist stone dead. Hepworth’s ‘present’, to allude to the quote above, is an attempt by Tate Britain to reclaim for the St Ives group what was lost.
It is without question that St Ives was a major centre of the British avant-garde and that Hepworth was a key component.
This discussion and exhibition in the Tate tries to answer in the affirmative, ‘Is the work enduring?’It fails. But this is an important question that was returned to later that afternoon.
The second session in the afternoon was a two-way interview between Hannah Rothschild, Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, and Sir Nicholas Serota. Hannah’s read from and talked about her new and first novel, The ‘Improbability of Love.’ The novel is about the purchaser who buys a Jean-Antoine Watteau painting for £75 and is enamored and delighted in its authenticity and profit. In telling the painting’s story the author uses the device of the painting speaking to the reader about its history.
Hannah Rothschild said she chose Watteau as little is known about him and that made writing about him easier as it opened up varied possibilities for her book. It was the first time I have seen Sir Nicholas interviewed. Hannah Rothschild inquired about some contemporary artists, suggesting they are good for their time and vanish without trace. She asked what he thought of the idea that the Emperor has no clothes. These observations and questions did not elicit a full response from Sir Nicholas. He agreed the artists were good for and of their time but he offered no judgments on who would last and who would not. He sidestepped any investigation into whether the market is rigged at certain points, though Hannah writes in her novel about the practices that suggested it may be. The buying back of an artist by a gallery in auctions to maintain prices to take one example.
Sir Nicholas turned Hannah’s uncomfortable questions to him into his further questioning of her.
Three extracts by Hannah from her book contained a good joke based on the main character Vlad, a Russian Oligarch trying to buy into culture and London society for prestige, not understanding English. Vlad had problems in perceiving Damien Hurst’s originality at all. The third point that Hannah emphasized was her construction of the idea that Old Master paintings spoke. Serota aptly referred to this as her ‘conceit’ in the literary sense, could have been interesting if she let the painting quote what it had heard from the art professionals past and present who had stood in front of the picture.
Perhaps Hannah Rothschild, who, last year, became the first woman chair of the National Gallery Trustees, will find stronger ways to voice her knowledge and inform the public of the ways in which public and private finance have become enmeshed to the detriment of our visual experience.
Amusing by turns but never biting this interview reminded one member of the audience of Gilbert and Sullivan. Hannah is a sensitive thinker whose aesthetic has been finely tuned since childhood through her family’s collections. So much so that in the 1980s she discovered some 3,000 paintings were stolen from her family by the Nazi’s and she wrote about the looted artworks and researched the meticulous records kept by the looters.
Her emotional bond with art was forged when she was a child living inside and with great works of art. Her commitment to the public as strong. She knows more than she is telling.
Daniel Nanavati, UK Editor
Volume 30 number 1, August / September 2015 pp 34-35