The hole story: Barbara Hepworth in Wakefield

I VISITED BARCELONA in the late 1960s. One of the sights I saw was a museum dedicated to Pablo Picasso. Before entering that place, the artist’s works somewhat puzzled me. In the museum, there were some of Picasso’s earliest paintings. They were straightforward rather than abstract, and extremely well executed. The artist’s talents were immediately obvious. As I moved from room to room, the works on display became increasingly abstract. By seeing his progression from figurative to abstract, I began to appreciate his greatness as an artist, and I began to understand why he is regarded as a brilliant creator by many people. By the time I had finished looking around the museum, I had been converted from being sceptical about Picasso to becoming yet one more of his fans. More recently, I saw an exhibition showing the artistic development of Roy Lichtenstein from his earliest to his latest creations. No longer was he just a creator of entertaining pictures based on American comic strips, but I could see that he was an artist of great competence. Like the foregoing examples, a visit to the Cartwright Hall Museum in Bradford and seeing some of David Hockney’s earliest works also enhanced my appreciation of this highly prolific visual artist.

Bradford in Yorkshire is not far from the city of Wakefield, where Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was born. She was baptised in the city’s fine cathedral. Until today, I had mixed feelings about Hepworth’s works. There are some that I like very much, including a Mondrian-like crucifix at Salisbury Cathedral and a Naum Gabo inspired work attached to the eastern side of the John Lewis shop on London’s Oxford Street. Also, I have enjoyed visits to Hepworth’s studio and garden in Cornwall’s St Ives. However, as beautifully executed as her works are, I did not become terribly keen on her artistic output until today, the 18th of September 2021.

What converted me and increased my appreciation of Hepworth as an artist was today’s visit to the Hepworth Wakefield Museum. We arrived to discover that for the time being the whole museum is filled with works by Hepworth, beginning with her earliest and ending with her latest. The temporary exhibition, “Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life”, continues until the 27th of February 2022, and should not be missed.

As with other abstract artists, such as Picasso, Hepworth began learning the basics of figurative representation. Her earliest carvings and drawings were created superbly competently but give no hint of which directions her creative output was soon to follow. Had she not developed any further, she would have been regarded as a skilled, if not too exciting, sculptor. However, Hepworth soon became involved artistically, and in one case maritally, with leading artists of the twentieth century. Contact with them and their ideas  can be detected in some of the works she created as she moved from purely representational to highly abstract. It was particularly interesting to see a small carving with a hole in it, the first of her many works to have holes in them. The idea of the holes is to allow light to flow through her sculptures. It was not only other artists who inspired Hepworth’s creation but also the forces of nature, which unconsciously sculpt rocks, trees, and other natural features in the landscape.

It was interesting to see the life-size prototypes of some of Hepworth’s works I have admired in the past. It was wonderful, for example, to be able to get close to the full-size model sculpture which is now high up on the wall of John Lewis in Oxford Street.

Once again, seeing a collection of works illustrating the progression of an artist’s output from student days until the achievement of fame and beyond has helped me to increase my appreciation of an artist about whom I had some reservations. Today’s visit to the Hepworth Wakefield has moved Barbara Hepworth a long way up my ladder of great artists and removed any doubts I had about her works.

Finally, here is something that intrigues me. Hepworth, like Picasso and also my late mother, had what might be described as traditional basic artistic training, just like the European and western artists who created during the many centuries before the 20th, yet all three of them (and many others) moved from expressing themselves with figurative works to abstract creations. However, unlike the artists who flourished before the latter parts of the 19th century and never strayed into the world of artistic abstraction, those who created during after the late 19th century (including the Impressionists) strayed away from the purely figurative/representational. Why this happened is no doubt the subject matter of much art historical literature, which I have yet to read. As I wrote the previous sentence, it occurred to me that the move towards abstraction (and other forms of art that do not appear to give the viewer a straightforward recreation of nature) coincided with the advent of photography. The photograph can give the illusion of being a true image of the world, leaving the artist to explore other more imaginative representations of what he or she has seen.

FROM WHITE TO BLACK

IT WAS ONLY WHEN WE left our accommodation at Dholavira and headed east onto the causeway which connects Khadir Bet to the rest of Kutch (part of Gujarat) that we saw a truly white part of the White Rann (desert). Until then, we had seen small patches of salt crystallising on the surface of what had once been the seabed, an inlet of the Arabian Sea, before seismic activity rendered the sea into a desert.

As we drove across the causeway, we passed larges patches of what looks like freshly fallen snow. This is the salt that has crystallized after the evaporation of rain, which has fallen on the salt laden terrain. The layer of salt looked to be at least an inch or two deep. What we saw is what gives the White Rann its name. It is a truly white desert. We were also fortunate to spot three flamingos searching in a pool of water that had not yet evaporated. They were silhouetted against the morning sunshine.

After crossing the causeway, we drove for several hours towards the outskirts of Bhuj. We stopped for refreshments at Rapar, which looks like an Indian version of a small town in an American cowboy film. A woman in colourful traditional garb disembarked from a motor scooter on which she had been travelling with her husband and son. A cow wandered past her before she crossed the road with her son. A stray dog took a great interest in various used packages I threw in a bin, and then ran off.

At another stop, I drank tea from a saucer as the locals do. By pouring the tea into a saucer, the surface area of the liquid increases and the drink cools quicker than if it is in a cup.

At Bhuj, we headed north on a road that eventually ends abruptly at India’s border with Pakistan. At first, we drove across part of the Great Rann of Kutch. This is a very flat sandy area with sparse scrubby vegetation but no trees. We passed herds of buffaloes grazing in this arid area. Unlike the White Rann, the Great Rann is mostly sand coloured although I did spot occasional salty patches that looked like very light ground frost. The Great Rann is classed as a desert but it is home to a few industrial plants.

Somewhere along the long straight road crossing the Great Rann heading northwards, we passed a sign indicating we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

At the tiny village of Bhirindiyara, famed for its fine mawa. This is milk boiled slowly for about four hours and then mixed with sugar. It is a sweet paste faintly resembling vanilla fudge or caramel…delicious but probably not too healthy!

We left the main road leading towards Pakistan and began climbing towards the Black Hills of Kutch. We reached a sign that announced that we had arrived at the “Magnetic Field Area”. Our driver explained that here thrre is a magnetic field strong enough to drag a car. To demonstrate this, he turned off the engine, leaving the gear in neutral. Amazingly, our car began moving uphill without the engine.

We continued on our way into the Black Hills of Kutch, driving through a moonlike, rocky landscape. We drove up a series hairpin bends to Kala Dungar, the highest place in Kutch, 458 metres above the Rann.

The road between Bhuj and the side road to Kala Dungar is the main route to the largest part of the White Rann, where the annual White Rann Utsav (festival) is held in January and February. A huge tent encampment is set up on the salt covered desert and a fairground atmosphere reigns. The Utsav attracts many tourists, both Indian and foreign.

It is interesting to contrast the road from Bhuj to the Utsav with that from Bhuj to Dholavira. The former is highly developed for the large influx of tourists. Unlike many other roads in Gujarat, the one leading to the Utsav has many signs in English and is lined with resorts designed to appeal to visitors. In contrast, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira is like a route into the back of beyond. Apart from a few low-key tourist oriented enterprises near Dholavira, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira makes no concessions to attract tourists. Dholavira, unlike other parts of the White Rann, feels far away from the rest of the world and its few inducements to get tourists to part with money seem charmingly naive. However, in a year or two this is likely to change.

The change will follow the completion of a new road from Bhuj to Dholavira. Unlike the existing road that passes through Bhachau and Rapar, the new road will pass close to Kala Dungar and cross the great Lake of Kutch to Dholavirs on a new causeway. This will shorten the journey time between Bhuj and Dholavira from its present four and a half hours to about an hour and a half. The present remoteness of Dholavira, which is part of its charm, will be lost forever. The area will become much more easily accessible to tourists, and no doubt this will be beneficial for the prosperity of the locals. From a selfish point of view I am pleased that I visited Dholavira before the greater influx of visitors that will surely follow the completion of the new road.

We arrived at our hotel in the bazaar in the old city centre of Bhuj after sunset. After a couple of days in rustic Dholavira and several days in the countryside near Mandvi, the small city of Bhuj seemed to us to feel like a large metropolis.