Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World
@ Tate Britain 24 June – 25 October 2015


It is difficult to recall the name of any other female sculptor of Hepworth’s generation, a testament to her tenacity and her talent. Her name is regularly listed with the best of the twentieth-century British based Modernists: Epstein and Moore.

For those familiar with Hepworth’s sculptures this exhibition will be a joyful reaquaintance with a dynamic artist and a vibrant period. For those to whom her name is vaguely familiar and her art almost unknown, this is a rare opportunity to see works of aesthetic beauty crafted with devotion to an exceptional career.

The men in Hepworth’s life – husbands and sculptors – offer a contextual introduction to the canon of Hepworth’s diligence. She left them when constrained. During her lifetime Hepworth’s artistic and international achievements were hesitantly recognised by her peers. Yet the purpose of this exhibition is to convince us of Hepworth’s contemporary international standing.

There are seven rooms in which Hepworth’s sculptures are measured through the evolutionary decades of her industry. Meticulously selected works and recently released archive images draw the eye along Hepworth’s aesthetic journey and the excitement of her environments from studio cocoon to international platform.

Her smaller scaled early Primitive works, including the dark nude female form of Contemplative Figure (1928), clearly demonstrate her growing skill and confidence in carving; this progresses through her studio work, towards the elegantly smooth purity of geometric International Modernism showing the clinical precision of works such as Three Forms (1935) representing her triplet children.

Developmentally, these smaller scaled sculptures reflect the vogue of the period and its people: organic forms, pierced and strung hollows, and increasing experimentalism with materials’ physical forms and its spiritual representations.

Of necessity for security reasons, in viewing these smaller works, many are sanitised by a protective veneer of Perspex which distorts their illumination and envelopes their mesmerising appeal.

The symbiotic artistry of her partnership with second husband Ben Nicholson inspired in Hepworth a clarity of focus and aesthetic fluidity that few of her peers went on to achieve. Her linear profile proliferates his displayed paintings, whilst the silhouette of her forms reflect shapes seen within his work. This room successfully conveys the resonance of their creative synergy.

As the frugal mother of four children, she balanced her domestic responsibilities with her irrepressible sculptural drive, though Hepworth’s post-war paradigm shift was amplified by the loss of her beloved eldest son in 1953. Her emotion is manifest in the disciplined control and chasm carved precision of her African Guarea woods. They command inspection of solid mass and white washed emptiness. Tactile yet untouchable, the warmth of the wood glows. Spatially displayed together these four pieces of Greek title define the quantum of Hepworth’s personal revolution.

International demand for Hepworth’s architectural work necessitated the practicality of casting her plaster sculptures in bronze, rather than fulfilling her preference for the slower delivery of carving. Bold in scale and statement, these huge outdoor works are represented by small photographic images, which perhaps lack grandeur, impact and a descriptive vocabulary of elemental energy.

By the 1960s, Hepworth drew more deeply upon her modelling skills and her intuitive ability to finesse a more feminine expression of contemporary and recollected landscapes. Visually these landscapes are brought into view through screened archived films to lift our gaze skyward across the moors, cliffs and seascapes that inspired Hepworth’s art.

In the final room, her graceful landscape sculptures such as Meridian (1958) are set against the extraordinary recreation of Gerrit Rietveld’s 1955 pavilion which seeks to replicate an external ambience, grounding both sculptures and sculptor in time and place.

Stepping outside, a singular Hepworth garden sculpture sits upon the lawn outside Tate Britain where it benefits immeasurably from the dappled, shifting light and shade of its open air placement.

Musing up Hepworth’s rightly acclaimed creativity, there is perhaps a lingering misperception of Hepworth’s work as domestic in focus, wholly unjust given the magnitude of her colossal sculptures and their prestigious international locations. Decoding this intimacy is however the tantalising essence of Hepworth’s visual communication.

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