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Primary Magazine - Issue 21: The Art of Mathematics

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Created on 26 February 2010 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 22 March 2010 by ncetm_administrator


Primary Magazine Issue 21Barbara Hepworth - Photograph by Peter Kinnear. Image copyright barbarahepworth.org reproduced under the terms of copyright for educational use only

The Art of Mathematics 
Barbara Hepworth (1903 - 1975)

Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) was one of Britain's most important 20th Century artists and probably the most famous female sculptor. She achieved worldwide success at a time when it was very unusual for a woman to be a sculptor. She is perhaps most famous for her abstract sculptures of pierced forms. Unlike many artists, she had a gift for mathematics. 

In the 1960s, Hepworth's repertory of forms extended, from the strict geometry of her earlier work, to the more composite structure and monumental scale of her later work.

Her work can be found all over the world, for example:

Winged Figure - photograph by JustincBorn in 1903, Barbara was the eldest of four children and the daughter of a civil engineer whose work inspired her interest in technical drawings. 

At the age of 16 she won a scholarship to the Leeds School of Art, where Henry Moore was studying. Instead of doing the compulsory two years at the school she fitted the course into a single year, and went to the Royal College of Art in 1921 on a senior scholarship. She spent three years there, and in 1924 was a finalist for the Prix de Rome which provided an opportunity to live in Italy for a year, returning to London in November 1926.

In the 1930s, Barbara married for a second time and moved to Hampstead where she and her artist husband, Ben Nicholson, were at the centre of a small group of avant-garde artists living and working in London. They also travelled widely in Europe and made the acquaintance of leading artists in France, most notably Picasso, Brancusi, Braque and Mondrian. Barbara’s financial position remained precarious throughout the 1930s and in 1938 she and her family decided to leave London for St Ives.

Barbara Hepworth won increasing recognition in the decade that followed the Second World War. Like Henry Moore, her sculpture increased in scale as greater and greater opportunities were offered to her. She began to turn away from carving and to make some works, especially the larger ones, in bronze.

Hepworth's final years were beset by increasing ill health. She died in 1975 as the result of a fire in her studio.

More details of Barbara Hepworth’s life can be found at www.barbarahepworth.org.uk.

Many of her sculptures involved both solid shape and open space. She carved into and through her sculptures to explore both the inside and the outside. She looked at abstract ideas about colour, line, shape, form, balance and depth in her sculptures and liked to combine geometric shape with more organic forms. She used different materials and textures in order to draw attention to relationships between forms, surfaces and subject. 

A full catalogue of Barbara Hepworth’s work can be found on the website set up by the Hepworth Estate. Although all the images included on the site are protected by copyright, permission is given for educational use. 

Here are some examples of work that exhibit mathematical influence, but there are many more you may wish to examine:

Looking at Hepworth's sculpture

question markSome questions to ask of any work:

  • what is the first thing you think or feel when you look at the work?
  • what is it made from? (eg. wood, stone, metal, plaster)
  • how was it made?
  • can you tell by looking what materials, tools and techniques were used?
  • what shapes can you see?
  • does it have an inside and outside?
  • if so, what shape is the outside edge?
  • what is the shape in the middle?
  • can you see any lines of symmetry – reflection or rotation?

EYFS/ Key Stage 1   
Creating sculptures using shapes
Ask children to collect a range of 3D shapes and arrange them as a collection. Then ask the children to give their collection a name e.g. 

a collection of blue 2D shapes

A collection of blue 2D shapes

a collection of triangles

A collection of triangles

Using the shapes encourage the children to create their own sculpture as Barbara Hepworth did.
You could then ask pupils to look at natural things and to start thinking about shapes. They could then create a collection of natural shapes and to give their collection a name. They could think about where their sculptures should be set – for example, in a garden, on the hillside, on a beach in a gallery.

Key Stage 2
Barbara Hepworth used string in a very clever way in her sculptures. She appears to make curved lines with pieces of straight string.

Making curves with straight lines:
Ask the children to draw axes and scale as below up to 10 on graph or squared paper. Next ask them to join the points i.e. 1, 1 with a line then 2, 2 etc. The diagram below is illustrated using different colours to show the procedure but the children should use the same the colour to gain the maximum effect. Carry on until all the points are joined.

making curves with straight lines

The children can then experiment with overlapping designs, and designs using all four quadrants. The may also want to consider uneven axes. Here is a couple of examples:

making curves with straight lines - uneven axes making curves with straight lines - design using all four quadrants

These activities can look very effective on paper with a ruler and coloured pencils. However, why not work as Barbara Hepworth did - with string!

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