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Why are there holes in Hepworth’s sculpture?

Negative space is a common stylistic motif in modern British sculpture. In this article, Dr Maddie Boden discusses Hepworth's pioneering role in this.
A photograph showing a close up, cropped shot of Hepworth's signature carved into a bronze statue.
© University of York
Single Form (Antiphon) has two holes, or openings, on the top right and bottom left sides. These openings are common in Hepworth’s work from the 1930s onwards. The writer Jeanette Winterson described how vital such holes are in Hepworth’s work.

Single Form Antiphon

“Holes were not gaps – they were connections. Hepworth made the hole into a connection between different expressions of form, and she made space into its own form…This is liberating.”

In this course, we’ll see other examples of openings in the work of other sculptors such as Henry Moore and Austin Wright. However, amongst British sculptors, Hepworth significantly innovated this technique.

So, why does Hepworth include such openings in her sculpture? For Hepworth, sculpture was an exploration of mass over space. Thinking about Single Form (Antiphon) in terms of physics, the solid bronze parts are the sculpture’s mass and the holes within that mass create space. In Hepworth’s vision, space itself is a material (just like bronze or boxwood) and can be used in the construction of a sculpture. Hepworth referred to the holes in her work as piercings, an active and transformative description and considered it a “response to my desire to liberate mass without departing from it.”

The piercings also work as apertures, openings that allow light to flood into the space it creates. This gives the work a dynamic and spontaneous quality; the appearance of the sculpture changes along with the light conditions. Think about how Single Form (Antiphon) might look on a bright, sunny day as opposed to an overcast one. This is a particularly important component for Hepworth’s sculpture that is displayed outdoors, where it can directly filter the sunlight.

Reference

Jeanette Winterson, ‘The Hole of Life’ in Barbara Hepworth Centenary, London: Tate Publishing, 2003, 19-20.

© University of York
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Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

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