Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World

Art, Sculpture
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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Tate Britain’s summer 2015 show looks to reassess the reputation of this sculptor who is forever associated with Cornwall

The last time the Tate held a Barbara Hepworth retrospective, the artist herself had a hand in organising the show. That was in 1968, seven years before Britain’s first lady of modernist sculpture died in a fire in her St Ives studio – a fatal combination of sleeping pills and a fondness for smoking in bed. In the intervening years, so this show’s argument goes, we’ve tended to view Babs through rose-, or perhaps clotted cream-tinted spectacles; as a kind comfy heritage-industry modernist, when in fact she was a towering figure of the international avant-garde.

If that sounds like a lot of curatorial justification to swallow with your scones, it really isn’t. The exhibition is quick to place Hepworth in the company of her peers – literally, in the case of work by Henry Moore and her second husband Ben Nicholson, as well as through contextualising timelines. But the work itself is so tactile – a gorgeous parade of variously chiselled and polished materials such as green onyx, hoptonwood, fossil stone and lignum vitae (the densest wood, as any timber bore will tell you) – that you’ll want to go out and hug a tree at the very least. (The sculptures, alas, are mostly displayed behind Perspex).

From early carved figures to interlocking semi-abstract forms (the highlight of her loved-up interlude with Nicholson) to ancient-looking totems, Hepworth’s sculptural progression can be seen as a gradual rising up. She goes it alone, guided by her responses to nature. But the results are never less than generous. For example, when she burrows holes in pieces like ‘Curved Form (Delphi)’ (1955), painting their interiors or threading them with string, it’s because she wants you to go on a journey inside the form: to feel what it’s like to be in the landscape, part of an ancient history. There’s a terrific film of the artist at work in her St Ives garden, with a voiceover narrated by Cecil Day Lewis about mighty nature against ‘the small plans of man’. A Christian Scientist during the 1930s, Hepworth believed in the power of positive thought and that the platonic ideals she strove for in her art could function as a kind of response to the rise of fascism during that decade. But she was also a pragmatist, a businesswoman and judging by the way she controlled images of her work and herself, a control freak. In spite, or perhaps because of her evident prickliness, you warm to her enormously.

This isn’t a faultless show. By the time Hepworth emerges fully-formed, there’s not much space to devote to her triumphs. Her crowning achievement, the towering ‘Single Form’ (1961-64) that stands outside the United Nations building in New York, can’t travel, but it feels skimmed over here. Instead, the show ends rather oddly with a partial reconstruction of the brick pavilion created for her bronzes in a Dutch sculpture park by architect and designer Gerrit Rietveld. It leaves the work looking imprisoned and you feeling weirdly disconnected from Hepworth’s achievements. They may not have been able to bring the air and sunlight that were as much Hepworth’s materials as stone, wood or bronze to the Tate’s subterranean galleries, but they could have allowed her to shine a bit more brightly. At it’s best, though, this show delivers an exhilarating blast of vital, heartfelt art. 

Martin Coomer


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