Working in a gallery, surrounded by the history of British art, is a privileged but peculiar situation. You can’t help but see works differently over long association with them. In some cases it takes the edge off their power, and in others it amplifies it, but a work never remains the way it was when you first saw it.
Sometimes I miss those first looks – surprises, disturbances and disappointments – and I look back with nostalgia on the days of adolescence, when I was seeing everything for the first time, when it was all new, shocking, challenging.
I think the same thing can be applied more widely to how we see abstract art. Now, perhaps a century on, it’s hard to even imagine how startling it could have been to see non-representational works for the first time. Because it has become so easy to reproduce (and share and find) high quality images, your first experience of an art work might well be from a random web search resulting in a glowing image on a screen surrounded by thousands of other ‘similar images’. The collective familiarity with abstraction in art that this has brought means that we probably all struggle to see the full power of abstract works.
As well as being envious of my own fifteen-year-old-self, I am also a little envious of those who experienced the ‘shock of the new’ of abstract work first hand in the early years of the last century. In 1934 Barbara Hepworth wrote that her aim was ‘to project into a plastic medium some universal or abstract vision of beauty’, and Three Forms 1935 is her first sculpture representing this ideal.
Hepworth was embedded in the European avant-garde art world and was among the pioneers of abstract or abstracted sculpture, and especially in its introduction to British audiences. Three Forms marked the beginning of her work with geometrical abstraction:
The work was more formal and all traces of naturalism had disappeared, and for some years I was absorbed in the relationships in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tensions between the forms.
This seems perfectly reasonable to our ears, and indeed our eyes, now, but at the time, this work and works like it were the subject of much debate. We now can go straight to appreciating the work, without questioning the place of abstraction in art. For me, this work does have a power that is exactly to do with the tensions (and harmonies) between the forms, and I am comfortable in how to look at and understand this. It remains one of the works I want to spend time with again and again as it suggests stories and resists explanation.
But, sometimes, I wish I could see it in 1935, when these ideas were at the very cutting edge of modernism. When ‘modern’ was achingly new, when artists were grappling with what it meant to make work in turbulent and rapidly-changing times. I’m not saying that I don’t see contemporary work that does this now but I’d love to be startled by abstract art in a way I think I can probably never be.
Can Three Forms still do that for you?