The British sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) enjoys a pre-eminent position in twentieth-century British sculpture, second only to Henry Moore, and this new exhibition at London’s Tate Britain celebrates her work in the first major retrospective for almost 50 years.
The exhibition sets her work in context in a series of thematically organized displays which focus on aspects such as carving, work in her studio, international modernism, staging sculpture, and works in wood, and ends with a dramatic staging of her bronze sculptures in a partial reconstruction of the pavilion designed by Gerrit Rietveld at the Kröller-Müller Museum.
The first room displays smaller works, carved directly into the material, a technique which Hepworth favoured, enjoying the resistance of the hard material for its “expression of the accumulative idea of experience”. Her own carvings are displayed alongside those of her predecessors and contemporaries, such as Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, and include figures redolent of classical Hellenic torsos and animals which recall Japanese netsuke.
The ‘studio’ room focuses on her relationship with the artist Ben Nicholson, with whom she formed a romantic and working partnership. Works by Nicholson are on display, together with pieces on which they collaborated together. There are drawings, paintings, prints and rarely-seen textiles as well as carvings and sculpture, including “Kneeling Figure” (1932) and “Small Form” (1934). Living and working together, Hepworth’s and Nicholson’s work demonstrates a sympathetic dialogue, and photo albums compiled by the artists show them with their works, illustrating their shared idea of life integrated with art.
In the late 1930s, Hepworth began to make more purely abstract work. By this time, she was gaining prominence within the international avant-garde art movement and was recognized alongside luminaries such as Alberto Giacometti and Piet Mondrian. In addition to her artistic activities, she was an authoritative and articulate commentator and critic, and examples of her writing in journals and magazines is on display in the Tate exhibition.
She is most well known for her large organic forms, cast in bronze or carved from wood (a whole room, ‘Pelagos’ is devoted to these tactile, sensuous forms). These works expressed her response to her new surroundings: by the mid-1940s Hepworth and Nicholson had moved from north London to St Ives, in Cornwall, where they remained until Hepworth’s death. A selection of photographs, collages and films show how Hepworth presented or imagined her sculpture in architecture, the landscape, in the garden or on stage, and how the varied placing and contexts impact on the interpretation of her work.
The final room displays bronzes from the 1965 retrospective at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. The works are presented within a reconstructed pavilion and a floor-to-ceiling montage of a forest on one wall allows the visitor to enjoy a sense of how the works would be displayed outside. Indeed, many of Hepworth’s large-scale works are best viewed in a garden or landscape setting, offering an appreciation of how they reflect and respond to natural forms. It is therefore perhaps a pity that, due to the constraints and etiquette of a formal exhibition, one cannot touch and stroke her sinuous, sumptuous sculptures.
Barbara Hepworth became one of the most sculptors in the world and her work can still be seen in many prominent places, including the UN building in New York. This is compact and elegant retrospective celebrates a major figure in twentieth-century British Art and a leading light of the international art movement.
Doves (Group) 1927 Manchester Art Gallery