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Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos

Dame Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos, 1946, elm and string on oak base, 43 x 46 x 38.5 cm (Tate Britain). Pelagos is the word for "sea" in Greek. speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(soft music) - [Steven] We've come to the museum Tate Britain to see a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos. This was made just after the end of the Second World War. - [Beth] Pelagos means open sea in Greek and we know that Hepworth moved to Cornwall just before the start of World War Two in 1939. And Cornwall is a place that is known for the beauty of where the land meets the sea. - [Steven] But this is not a depiction of the sea. This is not a landscape in any sense. This is not taking a thing that she sees and trying to mimic it. Instead, it's a formal experiment in the feeling that one might have in that place. - [Beth] It's about experience and in fact she says this in a famous quote from this period. She said, "What a different shape and being "one becomes lying on the sand with the sea "almost above from when standing against the wind "on a high sheer cliff with seabirds circling "patterns below one. "And again, what a contrast from the form "one feels within oneself sheltering near some "great rocks or reclining in the sun "on the grass-covered rocky shapes which make "the double spiral of Pendour or Zennor cove." So she's referring to the bodily experience of being either enclosed or lying on the sand or standing upright and facing the wind. How does one translate that into sculpture? - [Steven] Sculpture had always been about the human body. But she's after something that seems almost impossible. How does one represent an internal feeling in the vocabulary of form and mass and volume, texture and color? - [Beth] When we think about this through sculpture, we think about sculptures that celebrate heroes or battles or ancient Greek gods and goddesses, or we think about sculptures of saints and other religious figures. - [Steven] So what has she done? Well, first of all she's carving in wood, which is a warm material, one that feels good in our hands, one that we can imagine holding that has texture and rich color. She's used round forms, which give a sense of sheltering, of protection. And the scale of the sculpture is small, it's intimate. It's about the width of our shoulders and so it's something that we can come to directly. It's not something that's put on a pedestal. - [Beth] Even in this glass box I am drawn to caressing the smoothness of that wood or what I imagine to be the even smoother interior. - [Steven] Which she painted a light blue so that it feels cool in contrast to the warmth of the outside. It looks as if it might actually be stone even though it's just painted wood. - [Beth] And then you have the string, which is the very opposite of these rounded forms of the wood. These are lines and they're also more fragile. - [Steven] It's introducing a drawing, almost a two-dimensional form, in the volumes of this sculpture. It seems to almost draw the wood back on itself as if it were completely malleable. - [Beth] Well, we could think about a conch shell, a shell that's created organically by the living form inside it. - [Steven] Or a wave, but a wave that is crested and has been held in stasis by those strings. At that perfect moment when it's about to break it's held there permanently. This sculpture is so complicated. As you move around it, you can't anticipate what you're going to see. - [Beth] The longer you spend with it, the more you see how complex and sensitive the relationship of those curves are to one another and to the depth of the sculpture itself. - [Steven] And I can't help but think about how its ideal qualities function as a refuge in the moment that it was made. This is 1946, the war had just ended, Britain was in ruins and yet here she is creating this ideal representation. She lived at a moment that we often refer to as high modernism. If you look back to the art historians of her own era, they would rarely discuss the circumstances that might have helped shaped this. For example, the end of the war. Instead, they would focus on the traditions that she was breaking and one of those was the idea of sculpture as a mass. When she first pierced her sculpture it was doing something fundamentally different from what sculpture had always been. One of the other issues that's often brought out in talking about Barbara Hepworth's sculpture and other sculptors of the same period in England, people like Henry Moore, is the idea of truth to materials. That is rejecting the 19th century way of making sculpture, building in wax or clay, casting in bronze or having a marble sculpture carved by somebody else. Here instead the artist has taken a block of wood that they've chosen. - [Beth] And you get that sensitivity to the wood when you walk around this sculpture and you see these lovely rounded forms of the grain itself. - [Steven] But the sculpture we're looking at is more than 70 years old, and because it's an organic material and it's been handled, it's no longer perfect. The strings sag ever so slightly. They're not as taut as I imagine they once were. There's some slight cracking in the wood and you can see that the paint has been redone. The outside is dark and the inside is light, which itself is unexpected. And though she seems to have dismissed the importance of color in her sculpture in a later statement, we can't help but think about the blue of the sea and the color of the earth that surrounds the sea in the coves in the Cornwall that she was living in. (upbeat music)