Barbara Hepworth’s Ultimate Form Has Slipped Away

Barbara Hepworth’s monumental sculpture Ultimate Form is currently out of sight. The official word from Adelaide Festival Centre is that it is in storage for safekeeping, pending redevelopment plans for the Festival Centre and Plaza. Watch this space, writes John Neylon.

In 1970 an initial public appeal for $100,000 towards the cost of building the Festival Theatre was oversubscribed by $53,000. These additional funds were set aside for the commissioning or purchase of major art works. What we know today as the Adelaide Festival Centre Works of Art Collection got off to a flying start with the purchase of Dame Barbara Hepworth’s monumental bronze sculpture, Ultimate Form and 13 River Murray Scenes oil landscape panels by Fred Williams. Private contributions and corporate support made it possible for other works to join the collection including Bert Flugelman’s Tetrahedra and Sidney Nolan’s Rainbow Serpent mural. Another work, the British artist Phillip King’s Yellow Between, on loan to the Trust from the Lord McAlpine Collection was returned to this collection in 1988. King is now critically regarded as Britain’s preeminent living modern sculptor and has been honoured by a major survey at Tate Britain from early 2015. It slipped away to a private gallery in Western Australia. Pity. Now Barbara Hepworth’s Ultimate Form has slipped away – at least out of sight. The official word from AFC is that it is currently in storage for safekeeping, pending redevelopment plans for the Festival Centre and Plaza environs. Various people around town have sought a more concrete assurance that the work will remain in the AFC collection. Silence. A question was raised (member for Bright) in the House on February 26 asking if the Festival Centre had any plans to sell the Hepworth to fund future development. J.J. Snelling as Minister for the Arts indicated that he would get a report back to the member for Bright. Watch this space. In the meantime let’s consider what’s at stake here. Hepworth is internationally recognised as one of the foremost sculptors of the 20th century. Her work is represented in more than 100 public collections across the world and commissioned works can be found in prominent sites across the UK, Europe and USA. The Art Gallery of South Australia has one of the finest collections of British art outside of the UK. It includes a small, but striking work by Hepworth (Ra) and a figurative work by the artist’s contemporary, Henry Moore. Next door, the University of Adelaide’s Moore (Reclining Connected Forms, 1969) chimes in to help create a sense of what mattered to artists and society in the turbulent mid and post war years in Britain, Europe and Australia. The experience of war and the drift into Cold War uncertainties caused many modern artists to reflect on the nature of humanity and its future. Artists like Hepworth sought a sense of anchorage and found it in nature and sense of being connected through primal abstracted forms to an ancestral past. When she relocated to St Ives in Cornwall in 1939, near the outbreak of war she reconnected with both through the beauty and natural cycles of the landscape and the ancient standing stones of West Cornwall.  Ultimate Form is one of Hepworth’s last works and is the fruition of a lifetime’s quest to create visual forms that speak directly to the eye and heart. It comes from a series titled Family of Man, which consists of nine freestanding figures tracing life from that of a young girl through maturity and parenthood back to the ancestors and the ‘Ultimate Form’. When interviewed about this ninth figure in the series (check out the online British Pathé interview), Hepworth said, “We all have an aspiration which we share. They may be different aspirations but they are still hopes for the future, belief in the future, belief in the children that are yet to be born, and the Ultimate Form has the kind of serenity saying ‘go on working – here I am’.” That’s what we need don’t we? In these uncertain times – art that grounds reconnects and inspires us to hope for a better future. This remarkable sculpture is monumental in every sense and a compelling human statement expressed by one of modern art’s most acclaimed artists. From mid-2015, Hepworth’s achievements will be recognised in a major Tate Britain retrospective Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World. This exhibition will emphasise her prominence in the international art world and status as one of the most successful artists in the world during the 1950s and 1960s. It’s time for the AFC to address a rising tide of ‘say it ain’t so’ concerns with a simple response – ‘Ultimate Form is here to stay’. Is it that hard?

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