Transformations into the Sublime

Transformations into the Sublime

Helaine Blumenfeld is widely acclaimed for her contributions to the world of sculpture, having been spoken about in the context of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. In 2006, Blumenfeld was the first female recipient of the Premio Pietrasanta e la Versilia nel Mondo, an international award for sculpture. In acknowledgement of her services to the Arts, Helaine Blumenfeld was awarded an honorary OBE by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II in 2011. Aesthetica catch up with the artist ahead of her new show at Hignell Gallery, London.

A: How do you feel that Hard Beauty both encompasses your entire career and also highlights recent works and personal developments?
HB: The title of my present exhibition can be understood on many levels: a reference to the hardness of the materials I use, the difficulties involved in creating my work both emotionally and physically, an insistence that beauty itself begins with deeply felt emotion, often despair, but is transformed into the sublime.

I have never felt that there was a contradiction between beauty and pain. On the contrary, only by revealing a profound emotional reality which recognises the upheaval and disruption in our lives can we ever hope to transcend it. Beauty is not a denial of pain, but an acceptance of it. The precondition of being an artist for me has always been a radical confrontation with reality and an effort to achieve a distance from it. For me, Hard Beauty is about what causes the viewer to struggle with reality.

These concerns have always accompanied me on my journey as an artist. However, only with my more recent works have I moved from the expression of intensely personal themes to try to address the moral and physical upheaval of the wider world. This is a time when both beauty and, working as I do, with my hands – in clay, in marble, casting in bronze – often seems to be marginalised and redefined.

Recently I was described in The Independent as “fearless” because I have not been afraid to create work which is unapologetically beautiful. I feel that now, living in a turbulent world, it is more necessary than ever to create beauty that will be transformative.

A: Could you discuss how your contributions to the medium have moved through a seemingly male-dominated world, for example as a practitioner you have been described as “the heir apparent to Moore and Hepworth”?
HB: It was very hard for me to break into the male-dominated culture of the Studios in Pietrasanta. Women were not respected. The struggle was on many levels – learning to carve, keeping discipline, overcoming the reputation of women who came before me and were not perceived to be serious.

Respect came through the sculptures I made as I learned to carve. My practice benefited from the demands made on me at the time. Today sculptors bring in models to be copied by the artisans with little understanding or involvement in the process. Working in that atmosphere forced me to discover and develop my own voice; creating works that are recognisable as mine. This is not about innovation or even originality, but individuality. Whatever material I work with, I can only express who I am by searching within my psyche and drawing upon my inner vision and experience. These are my raw materials.

A: What are the universal concepts which your works approach?
HB: I approach many concepts in my work, creativity and risk in particular. As a child, I frequently had visionary dreams that were overwhelming. I’d wake up and want to express what I had dreamt to my family. I realised that the words I was using gave no indication of what I had dreamt. I began to recognise that ordinary language could not express dreams, which are by their very nature beyond language. It was only when some years later I discovered clay that I began to develop that extraordinary language through sculpture. For the artist, creativity is about expressing something beyond the self. It is not about expressing personal grievances; it is not about expressing political ideas, and it is not about expressing one’s pain.

As Susan Langer has said, “the artist has the ability to express the pain of all human beings.” The question is, how do we get from what is a very personal experience to something which is going to touch all people and bypass the personal? Every aspect of creativity involves and requires risk. The struggle between chaos and order is continuous in the act of creating a “work of art.” I never know what to expect. I have no inner structure, no drawings, no models. In creating the work, I am creating the very conditions of uncertainty. This “self crisis” drives the creative process.

There is an essential essence of not knowing if it will ultimately reflect my vision and then not knowing if my vision will mirror only my innermost feelings or reflect, resonate with the viewers. Sculpture may reflect my inner life, but if does not go beyond that vision and remains subjective, it fails.

A: Could you discuss the differences in processes towards different materials, for example, bronze and marble and how you alter your approach to them?
HB: We are flooded by talk about “the cutting edge.” I believe that work in any medium, all types of work, can be at that edge. It is not about using new materials; rather it is about pushing the materials and forms you are using to their limits. Extending the frontiers of the way you have chosen to work – as a painter, as a sculptor, as a poet or writer. It is about knowing the tools and techniques, about honouring the history and tradition, and then by infusing the energy and originality of your own into the work, transforming it and extending it into another sphere. In the early stages of working in clay, a material that is soft and malleable, the sculpture is free to evolve.

As I refine the model and become more convinced of the idea, I am increasingly determined to translate it into a material that is hard and lasting. When I am completely convinced by the initial model and feel that it cannot be improved upon, I will generally choose to cast it in bronze. If I feel it needs more time to “grow” then the very slow process of carving it in marble will appeal to me. Bronze means stability, but also dynamism and boldness. Marble offers me the possibility of translucency and light entering into the work as another dimension. This highlights the contrast between the apparent fragility of the material and the strength of the form. Ultimately the inherent spirituality of marble is enormously appealing.

A: How do you think your pieces capture a moment in time – a kind of fluidity that has been carved and fixed into hard materials?
HB: I’m not interested in capturing a moment in time. I am interested it presenting something which will have infinite meanings. I see art as a revelation. The ability to stand back and see rationally whether or not a sculpture has potential, and to know how to alter it is an almost instant revelation but it’s revealed by the mind, not the emotions. As an artist I have got to switch from working emotionally, almost irrationally, through my subconscious, to making an intellectual appraisal.

At that point I go into the next stage of creativity, which is to translate the rough model, the model that I have created in a state touched by inspiration and refine it into a finished work that can stand alone without any explanation.

A: What is it about sculpture that you think people respond to?
HB: I am convinced that art can blaze a trail through uncharted territory. Without any words it can translate the subconscious realm of the soul. By inventing new languages, art is capable of capturing a vision which eludes verbal description. This is what I hope to achieve. I want the viewer to enter into the sculpture. My work is a call to viewers to be present, inviting them to take time to reflect.

A: How would you describe the narrative of your sculptures – do they tell a story at all and what might it be?
HB: A desire to capture in form the mystery that is the human spirit was the initial reason I turned to sculpture. The essence of what it is to be human, I believe, is located in the soul. Not an entity that can be seen or measured – but a force that suffuses us, illuminates us and which we can nurture. It is not physical, it is beyond substance. All of my sculptures are part of a search to discover this intangible, nebulous quality which gives meaning and vision to our lives. My exploration had focused on the individual, on relationships, on the process of life itself.

The soul is the internal manifestation connecting us to this transcendent pure spirit, and angels are the outer manifestation, showing us our connection to another sphere.In the last few years, I found myself uniting several themes that had occupied me throughout my creative life. Looking at my most recent sculptures, I can see that all of the separate strands making up the multiplicity of themes that challenged me have come together, overlapping, adding to the understanding one of the other, to form part of a greater description of the entire human condition.

A: How do you think abstraction manoeuvres as an aspect of your designs – approaching but shying away from direct representations of human bodies?
HB: In trying to represent human feelings and dreams and “the mysteries of the human soul.” I began by depending on the human figure and gestures. Over time, the search for this led me away from conventional forms of representation. I began to discover abstracted fragments could convey intense emotion, combining physical elements could suggest movement. The further I was able to abstract gestures and figurative references the closer I was to developing my own language of form.

I discovered that through ambiguity that people were able to receive and interpret a wide range of messages and emotions. People often say to me that when they look at a sculpture of mine they “see” figurative elements. This is not an aspect of my designs, but is the result of the intuitive way in which I work. My hope is to create a continuous dialogue between the viewer and the sculpture, which the ambiguous space between abstraction and figuration encourages. There are no correct interpretations to my sculptures. All are correct.

A: What are your future plans after the exhibition at Hignell Gallery?
HB: I am hoping in the next years to continue to focus even more on the creation of public sculpture. I have been involved with projects that were sited in parks, hospitals, universities, city centres, community plazas, libraries, theatres and ships. Each project has had different parameters, but I have always been concerned with creating something that will provide a reference point to the people who experience it and that will connect the physical and conceptual space.

Beauty is the reason that public art exists. My objective has been to create things of the spirit, which will add another dimension to the daily lives of people that experience them. The most successful sculptures create a sense of place. There is a feeling of civic ownership for the sculpture. People interact with it; they meet, eat lunch by it; the sculpture adds life to the landscape and gives it personality. I am currently working on a commission to create a monumental sculpture that will celebrate the strength and potential that can be achieved by cooperation between Muslims, Christians and Jews. This is something I believe passionately in and so I am particularly looking forward to creating this monument.

Hard Beauty opens at Hignell Gallery, London, 22 September.

For more information visit:

1. Helaine Blumenfeld OBE Taking Risks (2016), Terracotta. Courtesy of Hignell Gallery.