When I was considering what sculpture I would like to feature first on Tuesdays (sculpture and architecture day), I began at once to think about my personal relationship with sculpture. Immediately, I thought of NorthPark Center! That may seem like a weird association, but I think Dallas natives will understand.
NorthPark was opened in 1965 as the largest climate-controlled indoor shopping mall in the world. I was 11 or 12 at the time, and my sister and I fell in love with the mall. We didn’t live very close, but we weren’t too far to keep us from shopping there as frequently as we could – and really, there weren’t that many other options at the time. But the reason I bring it up is that NorthPark Center was home to many of Raymond Nasher’s sculptures, especially prior to the opening of the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas. Nasher was the mall’s developer, and from the beginning, the plan was to include art displays within the mall. Nasher was an avid collector of 20th-century sculptures, and bought pieces from nearly all of the well-known and critically acclaimed sculptors of the time.
I was always fascinated by the rotating collection of sculptures that appeared in various segments of the mall. When I visited the Nasher Sculpture Center for the first time, I felt like I was surrounded by old friends. As a teenager, I didn’t realize what a long-term effect these sculptures would have on me. I realize now, however, that they contributed greatly to my love of art in all its forms.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I wish to present a sculpture that is not part of the Nasher collection! (sorry) But I believe that my appreciation and love for this sculpture would not have been possible without Mr. Nasher’s generous, albeit unknowing, assistance.
Pelagos, Barbara Hepworth (1946)
A photograph cannot do justice to this amazing work. It is crafted of elm wood and sits on a base made of oak. The spiral shape is natural wood on the outside and painted a very pale, icy blue on the inside. (For years I looked at this sculpture thinking that the paint was white.) A single string is stretched through small holes in a back-and-forth pattern that connects the two ends of the spiral.
There are so many aspects of this sculpture that I love. I can almost feel the satiny warmth of the wood grain under my fingers, even though I’ve never seen the work in person (and wouldn’t be able to touch it, even if I could visit its home, the Tate Modern in London). The contrast between the natural outside surface and the painted interior highlights the best qualities of both. The round, spiral shape is inviting, and the fact that the sculpture is, in a way, pierced through gives it a lightness. The work is massive and substantial, and yet light and almost airy at the same time. The strings remind me of a harp or other musical instrument.
This may have been intentional. The name, Pelagos, means “sea” in Greek. An Aeolian harp was originally a Greek concept–the word “aeolian” comes from the name of the ancient Greek god of the wind. An aeolian harp is a musical instrument played by the wind, where the wind’s passage through the strings causes them to vibrate and sing. I can’t help but think that these Greek associations are not incidental, but intentional, for two reasons: 1) Hepworth had traveled to Greece prior to the outbreak of WWII; and 2) she was originally trained as a musician. I think the work is inspired by the crystal waters of the Aegean Sea and is meant to represent a cove or bay; the blue interior represents the waters of the ocean and the brown wood of the exterior is a surrogate for the hills and mountains surrounding the cove. The strings imply tension, wind, and music–all important aspects of Greece, as well as of her home in St. Ives, Cornwall, where she was living when this work was created.
I really admire the sculptor, Dame Barbara Hepworth. At the time that Hepworth was working in England, very few women had ever been successful as sculptors. Most people thought that women were too weak to sculpt, but Hepworth showed the world that wasn’t true. She was a colleague and friend of Henry Moore, and together they developed many of the ideas that Moore would later expound upon in his treatises on art and criticism. She was the first to “puncture” her forms, a technique that Moore would later adopt. She had a son with her first husband and triplets with her second husband. Her older son, Paul, was killed while serving in the British Air Force. Tragically, Hepworth herself died from a fire in her studio. Her home and studio were so far removed from any town or village in Cornwall that the fire department couldn’t arrive in time to save her. She was 72.
If you’re interested in learning more about Pelagos, watch this video from the Khan Academy. One of the nicest things about this video is that you get to see the work from all sides, as well as learn more about it and its creator.