Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World @ Tate Britain

This is the largest retrospective of English woman sculptor Barbara Hepworth in nearly 50 years.

Hepworth (1903-1975) was born and raised in Leeds, where she met Henry Moore, a lifelong colleague, at art school. She moved south to London where, after her first marriage broke down, she married artist Ben Nicholson. They were both Christian Scientists and their love letters include a great deal about love and God and spirit, as well as bien pensant left-wing sentiments of the day.

Along with other young sculptors in the 1920s Ben and Barbara practiced ‘direct carving’ (the ‘new movement’), unlike the older generation which moulded shapes in clay and had them cast in metal by artisans; this ‘direct carving’ of the material (wood or stone) being a much more intimate (and difficult) relationship with the medium.

The first room shows Hepworth’s small sculptures from the late 1920s among those of contemporaries, including Jacob Epstein. Lots of these small early carvings are exquisite.

Barbara Hepworth, Doves (Group) 1927 Parian marble Manchester Art Gallery © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Doves (Group) 1927 Parian marble Manchester Art Gallery © Bowness

Nicholson and Hepworth were leading exponents of the English branch of International Modernism, very consciously staging and arranging their works in exhibitions and via magazines and articles showing their studios full of paintings or photos or textiles by other contemporary artists. This exhibition displays a number of the couple’s photo albums giving a good sense of the artful staged quality, as well as a whole wall of excerpts from the little art magazines their work appeared in.

The 1930s was a golden decade with refugees from Nazism like Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer, Gabo etc fleeing to Britain bringing with them a wave of confidence about modern art, reflected in a host of small art magazines, new exhibition spaces and little groups and movements creating a sense of community among the embattled artists. Hepworth’s sculptures become more abstract, Nicholson painted his famous white paintings, as well as numerous paintings of the couple in incised, cartoon outline borrowed from Picasso. In 1934 Hepworth bore Nicholson triplets. Away from the artistic scene, domestic life must have been difficult and demanding for her.

Hepworth’s sculptures in the 1930s leave behind the figuratism of the 1920s to become more abstract, smooth and round. The show features a set of mothers and children with the child figure separate but balanced on the smooth flowing mother figure. A cool Modernist abstraction.

Barbara Hepworth, Large and Small Form (1934) White alabaster The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Large and Small Form (1934) White alabaster The Pier Arts Centre Collection, Orkney © Bowness

String makes its first appearance in sculptures from the 1940s, for example Pelagos (1946), carved from one block of wood and then strung. The Greek word relates to sea and it is entirely up to us whether we visualise a wave or waves breaking, or see the purpose of the string to create and define space, or whether the light blue Mediterranean azure of the interior indicates the sea. But it is a striking object. It feels finished, achieved, the product of a definite vision and style.

Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos (1946) Elm and strings on oak © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos (1946)
Elm and strings on oak
© Bowness

In the early part of the war Hepworth had nowhere to work and exhibitions were thin on the ground. The show jumps to after the war and a series of drawings of surgeons in an operating theatre (1948), a testimony to their craft and professionalism, and also a left-wing tribute to the creation of the NHS. In style reminiscent of Henry Moore’s drawings of people in the Underground during the Blitz.

By the 1950s Hepworth had become an international star, winning prizes at biennales and art festivals around the world. Her work became larger. An entire room is dedicated to just four sculptures made of wood, given Greek names as inspired by a trip to Greece to recover from the death of her son, aged just 23, in a plane crash. The wood is guarea which a voice on the audioguide accurately describes as ‘conker-like brown’, with the interior coloured that same off-white colour that you get at the top of conkers. Does the string make it a Greek lyre (bit obvious)? Create and define space? Or was it a tic of the period, something to do with the 1950s and equally used by Moore and in the mobiles of Calder and in other artists’ work?

It is one of the exhibition’s claims that this is the first time all four pieces have been in the same place since their creation and it makes for an impressive room to stroll around and mull over.

Barbara Hepworth, Curved Form (Delphi) 1955 © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Curved Form (Delphi) 1955
© Bowness

In 1955 Hepworth was given the opportunity to design the costumes and sets for Michael Tippett’s opera, The Midsummer Marriage. The exhibition features photos and designs for this, along with much other documentary evidence: from the early photo albums, excerpts from numerous small art magazines she appeared in and wrote for, articles and photos about her increasingly public works, and the ‘documentary room’ is dominated by a massive video screen showing an old arts documentary profile of the artist.

By the 1960s Hepworth was a Big Name and given major public commissions. The exhibition features photos of the Winged Figure she created for the outside wall of John Lewis, Oxford Street (1962) and the Single Form commissioned to stand outside the United Nations building in New York (1964). What’s notable about these later works is they are big and cast in metal, enabling many copies to be made and transported around the world, unlike all hear earlier work which was limited in size by form (if it was wood) and direct carving. These later works are deliberately monumental in scale.

The last room in the exhibition dramatically recreates the Rietveld Pavilion in the Netherlands where a pavilion was built amid dense woodland for her bronze castings to be displayed against a backdrop of walls made from brieze blocks, unadorned and unfilled-in, themselves quite a striking statement about the bluntness of material and very much of their time.

Barbara Hepworth, Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-63 Bronze Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections Photograph courtesy The Kröller-Müller Otterlo, The Netherlands. Photograph by Mary Ann Sullivan, Blufton University © Bowness

Barbara Hepworth, Oval Form (Trezion) (1961-63) Bronze Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections Photograph courtesy The Kröller-Müller Otterlo, The Netherlands. Photograph by Mary Ann Sullivan, Blufton University © Bowness

Thoughts

I respect Hepworth’s achievement. She was a woman in a man’s world who triumphed on her own terms, not only creating in a wide range of media but writing insightful articles and commentary about her practice, founding the beautiful sculpture garden in her final home in St Ives, achieving worldwide renown, made a CBE then a Dame, about as successful as a British artist could be.

But none of the many pieces on display here really lit my fire. They’re all good, some are very good: I liked the doves and the smooth mothers and children from the early years, and the stringed hollow shapes from the 1940s and I sort of like the big metal figures from her last period. It’s all respectable, inoffensive, calm – and lacks the fire and energy and enthusiasm I tend to like in my art.

I’m afraid my favourite piece in the whole show was in the first room where Hepworth’s small carvings are set among her contemporaries and the standout piece for me was Doves by Jacob Epstein (1914) – something to do with its pagan primitivism or Egyptian sharpness of line, to do with the energy and incisiveness of its carving: all qualities I miss in Hepworth’s calm, Christian, feminine and, for me at any rate, rather bland works.

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