The day after the Summer solstice is a good day to see the work of Barbara Hepworth. However you need to ask yourself the question, is it still relevant circa 2015? Much of her work has a primeval feel to it with her love of natural materials from the many variety of woods to stone, marble and alabaster; the shapes that relate to natural forms and the way light interact with the forms. Despite her Christian Scientist roots her work feels like it is embedded with Paganism but maybe they aren’t so far apart with her belief in the power of positive thinking. Hepworth’s work has a distinct period feel whether it be the free-form organic shapes or the string laces entwining some of the hollows.
Seeing her work is always a treat and the works themselves can never be a disappointment. The curators of the show: Tate Britain’s outgoing Director Penelope Curtis and Chris Stephens, the Tate’s Lead Curator of Modern British Art and Head of Displays, are here attempting to show that she has been overlooked in the international art world and to prove that she was always part of its thriving mid-century arena. It is relatively small for a full retrospective and leaves out a lot of works including those in other media such as her prints from the late 1960s/early 1970s. It could have included more maquettes and studies for her public commissions instead of just the one for her sculpture on Waterloo Bridge. Natural light is really needed to fully immerse oneself in the pieces and I heard much talk about the fact the exhibition is being held in the Lower galleries at Tate Britain and not the ground floor rooms that have natural light. Another criticism is the fact that much of the smaller works were encased in clear vitrines thus removing the instant rapport with the power of her surfaces of the works. The Tate has recently acquired Hepworth’s archive of photographs and these are heavily included in the show. Although it is fascinating to see photos of her commissions, her own photographs which she used to work out ideas with light, angles and positions and her collages of her works glued onto images of modernist houses, it is no substitution for the works themselves. Although there is an interesting film showing her at work.
The works on display start small and get progressively larger as you move through the exhibition. Early works are set alongside her contemporaries some of whom are better known than others to show that she and Henry Moore were not the only sculptors interested in carving as opposed to modeling. There are sculptures by Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and her first husband John Skeaping among others. This is an interesting inclusion. The exhibition follows her progression from figurative to two forms relating to each other, how she began to incorporate the base into the work, to monoliths and the large pieces hollowed out in parts encouraging the viewer to feel as if they are inside the piece. One large room is dedicated to her collaborative relationship with her second husband Ben Nicholson. It shows how they worked out ideas together and exhibits some uncharacteristic Picassoesque works by Nicholson depicting Hepworth in profile. Personal photo albums are exhibited alongside her textiles, photograms and collages. Another room focuses on four large sculptures made out of the African Guarea wood that are compulsive. The smooth exterior set against the painted interior that twist and turn and draw you in.
However, the highlight of the exhibition is the recreation of Gerrit Rietveld’s 1955 pavilion and its 1965 exhibition of Hepworth’s bronze sculptures. It was initially made as a temporary structure for small sculptures at the Third International Sculpture Exhibition in Arnhem’s Sonsbeek Park . Ten years later it found a permanent home in the Kroller-Muller Museum’s sculpture garden and the Hepworth exhibition was its inaugural show. In natural light this must look stunning with the holes in the brick walls of the pavilion set against the intertwining ribbons of bronze. And yes this body of work, ever so retro, is still relevant on many different levels.
Words: Sara Faith Photos: P C Robinson © artlyst 2015