The Weasel

What are galleries doing when a very tactile Hepworth sculpture, `Touchstone', has a large notice nearby: `Please do not touch'?
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If there's one thing that gets my goat about art galleries, it's the way they ban you from touching sculptures. This bossy interdict even applies to works carved from marble or cast in bronze which would survive a nuclear blast. Presumably the intention is to preserve the works in pristine condition, so future generations can also peep like eunuchs at these untouchable treasures. But surely half the point, possibly more, of sculpture is to get to grips with it.

Take the current exhibition at the Tate which draws together a dozen or so works by 20th-century sculptors to celebrate the centenary of Henry Moore's birth. After half an hour, it became apparent to me that the piece which stops most visitors in their tracks is not by Moore; it is a late work from the chisel of his rather overlooked contemporary, Barbara Hepworth.

Completed in 1969, six years before her death, it is 2-ft-high rectangular block of Irish marble, jet black except for a few milky flecks. Hepworth has subtly shaped the chunk, chamfered its edges and cut shallow circular depressions in the stone. The result cries out to be touched, caressed and grasped. Dame Barbara herself was a great advocate of tactility, which she rather oddly termed "the stereognostic sense". She stressed: "Our sense of touch is a fundamental sensibility which comes into action at birth - the ability to feel weight and form, and assess its significance."

Yet a notice on the statue's plinth sternly admonishes "PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH" and a patina of dust on top of the work testifies to the obedience of visitors in this regard. A caption informs us: "The work appears to have a sacred and mysterious significance that is further enhanced by its title." Given their implacable opposition to tactile appreciation, it is no wonder that the Tate's artistic gauleiters appear mystified by the name Hepworth gave to her piece: Touchstone!


THE TRAJECTORY traced by the career of Gerald Scarfe, currently celebrated in a small retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, is summed up by two caricatures of Mick Jagger. The first is from 1966. Weighed down by lips like lava flows, the scrawny, naked pop star thrusts his pustular backside under the mascara-ed eye of Cecil Beaton. The second, from 1994, in Scarfe's later, much simplified style, portrays Jagger as an elegant, prancing figure in the dark glasses and top hat of the Haitian bogeyman Baron Samedi. A caption informs us that the design was "used as a T-shirt for the Rolling Stones VooDoo Lounge Tour". Once acclaimed as the Gillray of our time, Scarfe has been appropriated by the marketing men.

Still, the exhibition must have given a few awkward moments to the NPG, an institution saddled with the role of being the nation's photo album. It is pleasing to see Scarfe's 1989 rendition of a ferociously grumpy bird of prey given a full official title as HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh: The Great Aukward Bustard. HRH Queen Elizabeth II is a sourpuss lion. But much of Scarfe's recent output is flabby and genial. A stylised 1993 sketch of Arnold Schwarzenegger at Eden Roc, Cap d'Antibes (sounds a tough assignment) is positively flattering. No wonder that the artist admits: "Outraged victims don't come up and pole-axe me to the ground."

It is a relief to turn to the unbridled viciousness of early Scarfe: Ian Smith's politics summed up by his dead white eyeball; Reggie Maudling reduced to a wrinkled amalgam of wobbly jowls and pendulous breasts; a deliquescent Richard Nixon wiping his arse with the Stars and Stripes.

Harold Wilson, for whom the cartoonist reserved a particular venom, is piggy and cringing. In a cartoon entitled A Nasty Shock, Enoch Powell explodes - an eruption of mad eyes, rebarbative moustache and frothing mouth - following an accidental encounter with the trademark of Robertson's blackcurrant jam.

There is, however, one striking omission from the retrospective. Considering the large Aubrey Beardsley exhibition currently drawing crowds to the V&A, it is surprising that there are no examples on display of Scarfe's notorious pastiches of this fin-de-siecle decadent. Why notorious? Because in these drawings, produced during the great Beardsley craze of the late Sixties, Scarfe applied his gift for physical exaggeration to the phallus. The results, to say the least, are striking.

Similarly, this singular area of Scarfe's oeuvre receives no mention in Stephen Calloway's catalogue for the V&A show, though he cites several other Sixties artists influenced by Beardsley. How odd!


ALWAYS KEEN as Colman's to keep Weasel readers up to snuff about the world of poetry, I acquired the latest slender volume by the excellent Ruth Padel. Snappily described in last week's Times Literary Supplement as "plaintive, ecstatic, resentful, desirous, adoring, indulgent", the poems in Rembrandt Would Have Loved You (Chatto, pounds 7.99) were all inspired by a love-affair. We learn this from the kick-off, a longish poem called "Icicles Round a Tree in Dumfriesshire", which won the 1996 National Poetry Competition and, as a result, appeared in the pages of this newspaper.

Despite her wintry theme, Padel raises the temperature more than somewhat: The way you fire, lifting me/Off my own floor, legs furled/ Round your trunk... I mean to say, phew! Whirling her similes fast as a gunslinger's Colt .45, she compares her steamy contortions with an ice sculpture: Here they hang, a frozen whirligig of lightning/And the famous American sculptor/Who scrambles the world with his tripod/For strangeness au naturel, got sunset to fill them ... a double helix of opalescent fire..."

But, hang on a mo, what's this about "the famous American sculptor"? The artwork appropriated by Ms Padel to illuminate her vertebrae-threatening gymnastics was surely created by that incomparable manipulator of the natural world, Andy Goldsworthy, who happens to hail from Cheshire. Two stunning photographs of the celebrated icicle, which he ingeniously curled six times round a tree-trunk near his home in Dumfriesshire in December 1995, appear in his book, Tree (Viking, pounds 45). He writes that he was able to achieve this feat because it was "the coldest I have ever known in Britain". He was "able to work and freeze icicles as never before".

Goldsworthy's obsession with natural forms developed when he moved to the outskirts of Leeds at the age of seven. The Weasel happened to grow up in the same area, though I must admit that the cold northern winters never inspired a similar creativity in me - unless you count an unusual way of writing my name in the snow.

I wouldn't be so drearily prosaic as to expect factual accuracy from a poet, but I remain a little curious as to why Ruth Padel should confuse a gritty northern artist with a globe-trotting American. I mean, no one would make that mistake with David Hockney.