Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The sea is never far

'Narrated in fruity tones by future Poet Laureate Cecil Day Lewis, Figures in a Landscape offers a poetic portrait of sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the otherworldly Cornwall landscapes that inspired her work.'  This is how the BFI Mediatheque describes Dudley Shaw Ashton's short film and you can hear that plummy voice in the extract below, along with the 'haunting score' by Hepworth's friend Priaulx Rainer.  It would be easy to assume that the words in the film are Day Lewis's but in fact they were written by Jacquetta Hawkes, whose remarkable book on Britain, A Land, had appeared two years earlier.  The film begins with shots of the sea and coast and the words I have quoted below (punctuation my own), in which landscape, through the forces of wave and wind, is figured as a natural sculptor.  It then traces the ways that stone has taken on 'forms rising in the minds of man', from stone circles to churches and mines, standing out initially from their settings until 'seasons and centuries claimed them for the landscape.'

"Cornwall, a horn of rock, its point thrust out into the sea. Smooth or ribbed with waves, pale deep blue or angry dark, the sea lies round about it and from three sides sends up its mirrored light. Here is Penwith, the moors narrowing to Lands End, from the sea coast to the north it is not far across the rusty moors, where the rocks break through the bracken, not far to where the sea lies to the south. The sea is never far. It shapes the rocks, sometimes fingering them gently, sometimes forging them with long thundering blows, hollowing those caves where waves revolve in darkness.

"Or it cuts arches where the bright see light stares through above the waters, the wind blows upon the skin of the sea until it creeps and shivers. It follows behind the relentless roll of the tides. The wind passes its hand across the moors, ordering the grasses, smoothing the rocks beneath. Autumn, winter, spring and summer, the wind and the sea carve the rocks, whittling their images. They are at it now and have been at it a million million years, beyond the reach of clocks."
Whilst the dominant metaphor here may be nature as sculptor, it is hard not to read a sexual element into this imagery.  I mentioned this in an earlier post on Jacquetta Hawkes, whose lover J. B. Priestley is quoted as having said of her "What a woman — ice without and fire within!"  Ashton's visual imagery echoes the script with shots of standing forms and foaming waves, but what is most distinctive is the way he uses Hepworth's sculptures, placing them around the landscape in compositions that have a surreal quality (see below).  The clip embedded here shows Hepworth in her St Ives garden (which Priaulx Rainer helped design), at work with her mallets and files, but around the three minute mark we see a finished piece lying on the sand to be polished by the waves.  "The waves beat on the stone and the yielding wood, claiming them back from the small plans of man, they give them the shape of the earth and its tides, but the carver cuts deeper with her seeing eye."

Barbara Hepworth's Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) (1940) 
in front of mounds of china clay in a scene from Figures in a Landscape.
   "But others came cheerfully to dig for china clay. They piled the dark moors with soft white cones that stood in the staring light of the sea, bright light that breaks into colour."

A new exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World starts next week at Tate Britain and it will focus on the way her work has been presented or imagined in different contexts, including the landscape. 

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