Hepworth and Mondrian in Salisbury

IN THE 1930s, both the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and the painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Hampstead (north London). Hepworth and her two successive husbands lived and worked in the Mall Studios near Parkhill Road. Mondrian lived at 60 Parkhill Road. According to one of Hepworth’s biographers, Eleanor Clayton, writing in “Barbara Hepworth. Art and Life”:

“The beginnings of a friendship between Hepworth and Mondrian can be seen in her letters to Nicholson at the time: ‘so glad Mondrian said nice things about me & work. Goodness U did learn a LOT.’”

Visitors to the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral can see an abstract sculpture at the southeast corner of the grassy space enclosed by them. At first sight, it looks like a sculptural version of a painting that might have been created by Mondrian. It is a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth called “Construction (Crucifixion)”. This bronze artwork was created in 1966, and then donated by the artist to the Cathedral in 1969. It is according to a notice by the sculpture:

“… Hepworth’s response to Christ’s Crucifixion …”

The interpretation of the piece’s symbolism is far from simple, as a website text (https://www.salisbury.anglican.org/news/the-crucifixion) explained:

“What we see are 3 verticals linked by a single horizontal bar, and by 2 other horizontals at different heights.

A large circle, attached to the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines, is painted citrus yellow on one side and blue on the other. At the bottom of the central vertical, we see red on its own beneath the blue side of the circle, and red and white beneath the yellow. On the yellow side, a metal hoop encircles the point of crossing.

Hepworth wrote that she found it ‘very serene and quiet’, but that doesn’t have to guide what we make of this piece. We could see the yellow circle as the sun, the blue circle as the moon, the red paint as blood, the 2 verticals on either side as the crosses of the 2 men crucified with Jesus.

Or we could contemplate its hardness, weight, size (12ft tall and 2-and-a-half tons) and stark simplicity. We could seek to find meaning here, or we could stand before it and try to imagine the experience of meaningless horror and sheer emptiness which brutality of any kind must impose on those who witness it. For us, it need not seem ‘serene and quiet’ as for Hepworth. On the contrary this cross might confront us with the tragic lack of meaning which has so often afflicted humanity since the cross of Christ was first set up.”

Whatever its symbolism, Hepworth’s piece is attractive and looks good surrounded by the gothic architecture of the cloisters. Above all, its appearance immediately brings to mind thoughts about thw works of art created by Mondrian. One website (https://artistscollectingsociety.org/news/barbara-hepworth-sculpture-returns-salisbury-cathedral-permanent-display/) describes the piece as “Construction (Crucifixion): Homage to Mondrian” and then continued as follows:

“The sculpture is thought to explore the duality of Jesus Christ in its use of geometric symbols and features bold colours borrowed from the palette of ACS member Piet Mondrian, referenced in the artwork title.”

I was very pleased to see this work once again in March 2022, soon after publishing my book about Hampstead, past and present, in which I have included a substantial chapter about the modern artists who lived and worked in the area between the two World Wars. There is a good chance that Hepworth’s encounters with Mondrian and his work whilst they were both in Hampstead is reflected in the appearance of this abstract Crucifix, which stands in the cloisters at Salisbury.

PS My book, “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” is available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92).

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