100 Seconds – Cornwall – Art and Literature 06/07/2021

“Your work is very organic,” an interviewer remarked to Barbara Hepworth (photo 2) late in her life. “It’s meant to be. I’m organic myself!” was the British sculptor’s succinct, though revealing, reply.

Hepworth (1903-1975) has been characterized as an artist totally in tune with herself and with nature. Her sculptures evoke the play of wind and air, sunlight and sea spray on the Cornish coast — calm, strong, true. In her elemental, sensuous ovoid forms, I find a spirit evocative of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum (photo 1) is located in the artist colony and fishing village of St Ives. It preserves her studio and garden much as they were when she lived there. The studio is typical of local, stone-built houses. Her workshop remains full of her tools, materials, and part-worked pieces still waiting for their moment of completion.

Despite an impressive list of works and accolades, she has never been credited to her full worth internationally, as art was (and still is) a man’s world. She was very much aware of these obstacles. Hepworth began to introduce color into her woodcarvings from her drawings made during WWII. She utilized driftwood she found during long walks along the beach. I especially like a piece called “Pendour Cove” (photo 3), which conjures up a Cornish myth in which a man is enchanted by a mermaid and beckons her from the sea by singing.

Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was a fascinating writer, whose life was intimately connected with Cornwall (the moody place where most of her works are set). Her parents were prominent stage actors, comfortable and well-connected. Du Maurier, although very shy and reclusive, did what was expected of her by marrying and having children.

Although her novels, most prominently “Rebecca” and “My Cousin Rachel” (both made into films), are labeled “romantic”, they are far from that. They delve into the paranormal and hidden lives with wild, twisted plots. Although the Rebecca character appeared to be the paragon of kindness and beauty, she was a malevolent fake. The book ends grimly with her Cornish stately home in flames (the thinly disguised actual home of Du Maurier’s in Fowey, Cornwall). Although in real life, her home was not burned down, her life there was lost by legal wrangling and her husband’s affairs.

Du Maurier (photo 5) never wanted the masquerade of femininity — dresses, children, the template of a woman’s life. She liked rain-lashed walks on the coast (photo 4), to be scruffy, perpetually in trousers, messing about in boats or living in her own head. She locked herself in a box, as she called it; but right after the end of WWII, she opened up and let her “Venetian tendencies” out, as she called it, by falling very much in love with two women (notably Gertrude Lawrence, a great Broadway actress). All the while, she believed she was stuck in the wrong body but stayed married.

I have wondered why her characters, so winning and charming externally, turn out to be sinister shapeshifters, very capable of destroying others. In her writing, I see a strong parallel to the American author, Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), whose five novels about the charming murderer, Tom Ripley, were made into film thrillers. She too turned her buried life into a murderous imagination.

I wonder — what would they have written in a different world, where gender identity and sexual truth were respected, not shamed?

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