Human culture is bedded in stone — from the 3.3-million-year-old rock tools dug up near Kenya’s Lake Turkana to China’s Great Wall. Spewed out by volcanoes, folded and transformed by pressure and heat, laid down by patient tides and currents, the stone in habitations, palaces, bridges and objects represents an intimate relationship between civilisation and deep time.
But even as the tactile nature of shaped stone still draws us, the historic technique of free carving is dying out with the advent of 3D printing and sculpting media that can range from polyamide to frozen blood.
I was therefore intrigued to note concurrent London shows by two devotees of direct carving — Emily Young, and the late multimedia modernist icon Barbara Hepworth — a stone’s throw from each other.
Young (whose grandmother was the sculptor Kathleen Bruce, pupil of Auguste Rodin and widow of Scott of the Antarctic) is noted for bravura pieces such as colossal heads that can weigh several tonnes. Call and Response, her new exhibition at the Fine Art Society in London, features more heads, but at an intimate scale.
As I pass their ranks I am struck by the dazzling variety, mineral and textural. The veined and striated marbles, malachite, onyx and quartzite are saturated with powerful earthy hues or ethereally pale. Polished faces with Zen-like expressions emerge by degrees from rock left raw or deliberately roughened — like phases of the moon set in stone. In Cloud Fire Head, a profile juts from a translucent chunk of caramel onyx, swirled with an admixture of other minerals. The back of a dreaming head in montorsaio, a dolomitic limestone, is sheared at an angle like a boiled egg.
It got off lightly. “A lot of montorsaio is now smashed for gravel,” Young tells me, “along with the red marble rouge de vitrolle, once much used in Roman temples and palaces.” Young laments overextraction, and sources her raw material ethically. “What I like is unwanted, ‘unuseable’ stone. I have found amazing old blocks of it in defunct Italian quarries.”
She shapes it experimentally, working with natural flaws and patterns to discover what to work and what to leave alone. “I respond to the stone. I try to do as little as possible: the material guides the work.” Insights into the behaviour of materials emerge from that process. She tells me how Zimbabwean verdite, a fuchsite-based, chromium-rich rock used for her Forest Head, shoots out molten globules rather than dust under the diamond drill.
Young’s ethos and practice are rooted in an understanding of the processes that create stone over millions or billions of years. “Stone tells us of the origins of the planet, as geological pioneer Charles Lyell found. And as a medium it will endure. Today’s environmental problems are based on short-term thinking. I’m taking the long view, making something based on the pragmatic realities of matter and energy, and trying to remind people that this is our physical heritage — a piece of our mindboggling Universe.”
Across town at Tate Britain, Hepworth’s evocative pieces in stone shaped by chisel and mallet reveal different tensions. Many of her abstract forms are pierced, allowing interplay between space and mass and offering an exploration of inner form — as well as a window on new perceptions. As she wrote in the 1952 Barbara Hepworth: Carvings and Drawings: “I had felt the most intense pleasure in piercing the stone in order to make an abstract form and space; quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism.”
In this illuminating retrospective — the first in nearly 50 years — most of the stone sculptures on show are early and small-scale. Some are figurative, such as the beautiful Doves from 1927.
Others are ‘biomorphic’, rounded organic abstractions that hint at the influence of mathematical biologist D’Arcy Thompson’s seminal treatise On Growth and Form (reviewed here) on Hepworth and fellow sculptors including Henry Moore. The monumental stoneworks Hepworth created at St Ives in Cornwall appear solely in a fascinating 1953 documentary film by Dudley Shaw Ashton, Figures in a Landscape.
The purity of form in Hepworth’s stone abstractions is one with the pristine marbles she often chose. She pursued another kind of harmony in dynamic relationships. In Two Forms of 1937, the negative space between the pair of tapering standing stones in Serravezza marble seems charged with meaning. Hepworth wrote of being gripped by “the unconscious grouping of people when they are working together, producing a spatial movement which approximates to the structure of spirals in shells or rhythms in crystal structure; the meaning of the spaces between forms, or the shape of the displacement of forms in space, which in themselves have a most precise significance.”
Ashton’s film underlines another relationship — between Hepworth’s works and the environment, specifically the Cornish landscape that inspired so much of her work. Eidos, a stone ovoid with concentric concavities, is shown lodged on a beach like some wave-washed boulder. Tall marble slabs with perforated edges echo lighthouses and megaliths.
The footage of Hepworth chipping away at the 3-metre limestone Monolith (Empyrean) of 1953 with equally monolithic patience calls to mind another passage in Barbara Hepworth: “it was not dominance which one had to attain over material, but an understanding, almost a kind of persuasion”. It is an approach Young would recognise. There is something profoundly meditative and inquiring about the work of these two material women. By piercing form, Hepworth allows a glimpse of its inner life. By finding where to let the raw rock speak for itself, Young allows a glimpse of deep time.
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World is at Tate Britain, London, to 25 October 2015, and features a number of large works in African hardwood and bronze not discussed here. Emily Young’s exhibition Call and Response is at the Fine Art Society, London, to 27 August; and the Madonna dell’Orto, Venice, Italy, to 22 November, as part of the Venice Biennale.
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