Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World

For an artist with collections in numerous British museums and galleries, as well as public sculptures dotted across the country, it is somewhat surprising that this is the first time in almost 50 years that Barbara Hepworth has had a solo exhibition in London. Moreover, Hepworth has an unusually strong relationship with the Tate; aside from the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden in St Ives, Hepworth herself served as a Tate trustee during her latter years; her son-in-law, the art historian, Alan Bowness, later became Director of the Tate and the majority of her archive is held by the Tate – the list continues. So much so, it seems odd that the Hepworth-Tate-London connection has been overlooked. It is in this spirit that the exhibition’s curators, Penelope Curtis, Chris Stephens and Inga Fraser, speak in the exhibition catalogue of a desire to use the exhibition to ‘propose other contexts’ for Hepworth besides that of the Cornish landscape, to remember ‘that in her heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Hepworth was a major international figure.’ As if to reinforce this, the exhibition visitor is confronted with the mammoth bronze Squares with Two Circles (1963) at the door to the exhibition entrance, a physical reminder of the degree of her stature.

In keeping with these ‘other contexts’, the exhibition begins with an examination of the work of the 1920s, a period little referred to in scholarship. Curtis has observed that Hepworth’s early work tends to be situated among English modernism of the 1930s and defined by relationships with Ben Nicholson and writings by Herbert Read, with little regard of the previous decade. The first room of the exhibition aims to readdress this, and offer a wider frame of reference by presenting a condensed display of the artists of Hepworth’s generation (and earlier) who embraced the technique of ‘direct carving’ in the 1920s. This technique of creating sculpture through cutting or hewing natural materials, such as wood or stone, required the artist to be involved with the entire creative process, from start to finish. Works are included by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein as a nod to the earlier influence and the continuation of the direct carving debate from the pre-First World War artists. The exhibition presents direct carving as a more widely current technique than previous accounts allowed, indicative of the influence still exerted by the Arts and Crafts movement in both avant-garde and more amateur circles during the period.

The accompanying exhibition catalogue features an insightful essay by Ann Compton on Hepworth’s practice in the 1920s that draws attention to the role of female sculptors in the first quarter of the 20th century, who constituted over 40% of new entrants to the profession. This largely overlooked area of research is addressed in the display itself through the welcome inclusion of works by a number of Hepworth’s little known female contemporaries, including the 1931 Seated Female Figure by Ursula Edgcombe and Elsie Henderson’s Recumbent Fawnof 1925. The room provides the opportunity to see some of Hepworth’s rarely exhibited works of the 1920s, including in some cases works previously thought to be lost, such as the 1928 Contemplative Figure, last exhibited in 1968. The works act as testimony to her experimentation and utilisation of a wide ranging variety of materials, in particular a selection of exotic hard woods, which she used from 1929 onwards. They are also a reminder of her engagement with the tradition of primitive figurative sculpture, popular amongst the younger avant-garde artists of her generation. For a period Hepworth became popular with non-Western art collectors such as the esteemed collector of Chinese and Korean art, George Eumorfopoulos . He visited Hepworth and John Skeaping’s 1927 exhibition of carvings held in their St John’s Wood studio and purchased her Doves (Group) of that year, also on display in this first room.

The exhibition proceeds to the 1930s to focus on the relationship of Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and how their shared studio practice led to a rich exchange of ideas following Nicholson’s move into Hepworth’s home and studio in 1932. The emphasis here is on the merging of personal relationship and artistic output; as Nicholson wrote to Helen Sutherland, ‘Barbara and I are the same…our ideas, and our rhythms, our life is so exactly married that we can live, think and work…together as if we were one person.’ This notion of ‘one person’ is beautifully visualised through the sensitively curated display of works by both artists. The exhibition visitor is invited to follow the incised profile lines from Nicholson’s 1933 (profile) series to Hepworth’s profile outlines, similarly ‘drawn’ on to her sculptures, such as her Seated Figure (1932-3). This period of work has a remarkable sense of joy as the theme of maternity prevails in Hepworth’s sculpture, with the Mother and Child subject repeatedly recurring. Whilst this prevalent theme can at least partially be attributed to the birth of the Hepworth-Nicholson triplets taking place in 1934, what is most interesting is its translation into a sculpture marked by an overwhelming sense of protection and nurture. In the semi-abstract Mother and Child works from 1933 and 1934, the child is lovingly encased and protected by an enveloping mother’s arm, whilst in Large and Small Form (1934) the child sits atop the mother’s reclining form, as if in joyful play. 

Drawing on this exploration of Hepworth and Nicholson’s artistic relationship, the exhibition examines her relationships with other modernists more widely. Significantly it was through Nicholson that Hepworth came to the attention of the international avant-garde. During summer trips to France the couple met with Paris based painters and sculptors and both Picasso and Braque saw and admired Hepworth’s sculpture. Whilst such friendships are acknowledged, the focus here is on the modernist networks formed through magazines and print. The magazine and periodical has long been a critical tool utilised by the avant-garde and here is no exception. On the walls of the gallery space two editions of Abstraction-Création, the first overseas art journal to feature Hepworth’s work, are reproduced. In print we see Hepworth’s work placed alongside that of international artists such as Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Hans Arp, Wassily Kandinsky and Naum Gabo, confirming her place within the canon of international modernism.

It seems a shame that little attention is devoted to the artists groups Hepworth was involved with in Britain, namely Unit 1, nor the exhibitions of international abstract art that she exhibited in during the period, or the importance of Hampstead as a melting pot for émigré artists, (including Gabo and Mondrian), who took refuge in Britain with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s. Nonetheless, the wall based reproductions are accompanied by a well curated display of Hepworth’s works from the period, displaying the influence of the new language of international modernism on her development. In works such as Two Forms and Conoid, Sphere and Hollow (both 1937), we see a simplifying of forms and a concern with the properties of basic planar shapes emerging. The relationships between forms also becomes key, as the sculptures begin to split off into multiple forms (as in Two Forms), with the space in between becoming an integral element of the sculptural entity. The works are also marked by their flawless brilliant white appearance, recalling Mondrian’s purist canvases or the whitewashed facades of Le Corbusier’s villas. An experimentation with colour too begins to emerge; in Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) (6) (1943) we see Hepworth filling the cave-like spaces she gouges out with an intense single colour. 

From here, the exhibition uses its next room to consider how Hepworth further developed this new language of form in the 1940s to consider the importance of natural and organic forms. Although the gallery wall text omits any reference to the move to Cornwall in 1939, the influence of the Cornish landscape is discernible in the four carved wooden sculptures on display. Works such as Wave (1943-4) and the 1946 Pelagos, meaning ‘open sea’ in Greek, make this connection all the more explicit in their evocative titles. St Ives had an important sensory impact on Hepworth, ‘a sudden release from…. an almost unbearable diminution of space,’ which was paralleled in a concurrent opening up of sculptural form. The sound of the sea can almost be heard resounding through the open arched forms of Pelagosand Wave, whilst the tunnelling spaces of Pendour (1947) recalls coastal caves and inlets. The curators have ensured the sculptures in this room are wonderfully lit to highlight the contrasts in light and shadow of these spectacular hollowed out forms. For Hepworth, the relationship between light and shadow in form was critical to create those ‘evocative responses…a vital necessity to a full apprehension of space and volume’. 

Also on display are a selection of Hepworth’s drawings from the 1940s, a medium within her oeuvre that has hitherto received less attention than it deserves. Hepworth produced drawings throughout her career, many of which take the same titles as specific sculptures, and thus may be regarded in the light of pairings or repeated meditations on a similar theme. During the first three years after the move to St Ives she was unable to make major sculptural work due to cramped working conditions and lack of time, and consequently was confined to drawing and making plasters at night. Three major series of drawings exist from the 1940s, two of which, the abstract drawings and the hospital drawings, executed when Hepworth was permitted to attend operations and draw, are on display here. The two series are testimony to her continued exploration of the divide between the abstract and the figurative; writing on the hospital drawings, she noted that the composition of the operating theatre ‘human in shape – became abstract in shape’. Whilst the abstract drawings betray an almost mathematical exploration of space and form, reminiscent of Gabo, titles such as Curved Stone and Green Caves (both 1946) once again invoke the organic, a reminder of Hepworth’s interests of the constructive forms of nature, ‘the structure of spirals in shells or rhythm in crystal structure’.

The hospital drawings number amongst Hepworth’s most moving works, a visual translation of what she described as ‘the extraordinary beauty of purpose between human beings all dedicated to the saving of life’. As with much of her figurative work, the focus is on interaction and harmonious working rather than individual portraiture, and as such, works such as Concentration of Hands and Quartet I (Anthroplasty) (both 1948) divert attention to the surgeon’s hands and tools, tools that are remarkably similar to those of the sculptor. The connection between sculptor and surgeon is further enhanced through the peculiarly stone-like quality of the surgeon’s forms, whilst Hepworth’s technique of rubbing and scraping away the drawing’s surface creates a rough hewn texture, reminiscent of worn stone.

The fifth room provides a hiatus in the exhibition’s chronological structure to use largely unseen archival material to focus on Hepworth’s engagement with diverse media to achieve the ‘perfect settings’ that she sought for her work. The visitor sees Pendourphotographed against the backdrop of the St Ives Bay, Single Form (Memorial) (1961-2) re-imagined in diverse settings through the use of photomontage, and Two Forms (Two Figures) (1935) relocated to Roland Penrose’s garden and there photographed. Arguably, what is most striking in this display is a series of photomontages produced in the 1930s and published in Architectural Reviewin 1939, in which sculptures are placed in front of landmark modernist architecture. From Richard Neutra’s Silver Lake House in Los Angeles, to flats designed by Alfred and Emil Roth and Marcel Breuer at Doldertal, Zurich, it is clear that Hepworth is thinking of her sculpture on an international scale. The relationship between sculpture and architecture was one considered by a number of the architects of the International Style, including Mies van der Rohe, who included sculpture in his Barcelona Pavilion. Hepworth’s engagement with the subject through photomontage thus once again confirms her place within international modernist dialogue.

A screening of Figures in a Landscape, the first of a number of films to be made about Hepworth’s sculpture is also featured in this room. Made in 1953, Figures in a Landscapewas directed by Dudley Shaw Ashton, with words by the poet Jacquetta Hawkes and narrated by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. Fittingly the emphasis of the film is on setting, as the sculptures are filmed on the Cornish moors, the St Ives beach and even at a cliff-side amphitheatre at the nearby Minack Theatre. Often the camera aligns the sculptures with particular natural or architectural forms in the landscape, reminiscent of the Surrealists’ photographs of natural ‘ready-mades’ found in the landscape. Unfortunately, the potential impact of the film is somewhat lost through a curatorial decision to only play the audio of the film through a limited number of headphones available for exhibition visitors. Somewhat frustratingly, the haunting poetics of Day-Lewis’ narration and the strange percussive soundtrack, specially composed by Hepworth’s friend, the composer Priaulx Rainier, become lost in a queue to gain headphones.

The final two rooms of the exhibition similarly move away from the earlier dense chronological survey format to provide instead a more sparsely hung, specialised view of what the curators have chosen as two key moments from Hepworth’s work in the 1950s and 60s. The first of these two rooms brings together four of the thirteen so-termed ‘guarea carvings’ produced during the mid 1950s and early 1960s, when Hepworth acquired seventeen tonnes of scented guarea wood from Nigeria. Huge in stature and almost architectural in nature, described by Hepworth as ‘a great cave’, the works bring together something of the early 1920s wood carvings combined with the grandeur of her later bronzes. It is a rare opportunity to see the works displayed together and their tactile and sensory impact is all the more pronounced in relation to one another.

The exhibition reaches its high point in the final room in a partial reconstruction of the De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld’s open air pavilion by architecture students of the Royal College of Art. To celebrate Rietveld’s seventieth birthday, his Sonbeek pavilion was rebuilt as a permanent fixture in the gardens at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands in 1965, and opened with an exhibition of Hepworth’s work in the May of that year. The pavilion’s strength lays in its gentle synthesis of sculpture, nature and architecture as well its radical new method of allowing the visitor to experience sculpture in a fresh setting, away from the confined spaces of a traditional museum . In the Tate’s reconstruction, the visitor is taken on a visual journey of the realisation of Hepworth’s 1930s architectural photomontages.It is in this last gallery that the exhibition finally reaches the essence of Hepworth, that to see her work is not merely enough, it is how we experience it. Hepworth hated typical museological displays of her work, writing of feeling ‘sick of sculpture in galleries…with flat backgrounds….no sculpture really lives until it goes back to the landscape, the trees, the air…’ With the pavilion’s central aesthetic of perforated bricks against which the sculptures are placed, there is a sense of space and air, and critically sunlight could be allowed to seep through to create those ‘tactile perceptions’ that Hepworth desired. Even inside the gallery space there is a sense of liberation for the visitor as finally our movement is less constrained as we are permitted to wander round the pavilion and immerse ourselves amongst the sculpture and architecture. The experience of Otterlo was key for the development of Hepworth’s thinking regarding exhibition display and significantly three years later in her 1968 Tate retrospective, she worked closely with the exhibition designer Michael Brawne. Here they devised a display that promoted an informal and intimate viewing experience through creating modest ‘pavilion-like’ spaces, in which sculptures were placed on breeze blocks and lined with tall leafy plants.

For an exhibition that proposed to broaden the reading of Hepworth’s work seen primarily in relation to landscape and St Ives, it is somewhat ironic that the show concludes on another moment of the synthesis of nature and sculpture at the Rietveld Pavilion in Otterlo. However, what it does show is that nature could be modern too, in this case bringing Hepworth into the company of the modernist architects, for whom air, space and sunlight were all elements to be coveted. As Hepworth so aptly described her position between St Ives and the international world: ‘Looking out from our studios on the Atlantic beach we become more deeply rooted in Europe; but straining at the same time to fly like a bird over 3000 miles of water towards America and the East to unite our philosophy, religion and aesthetic language.’

Main image: Installation view, Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, Tate Britain with Barbara Hepworth’s Oval Form (Trezion), 1961-63, bronze 94×144×87cm., Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections, © Bowness; Curved Form (Trevalgan), 1956, bronze on wooden base 90.2×59.7×67.3cm.,Tate, © Bowness; Sphere with Inner Form 1963, bronze 90×90×88.5cm., Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester, UK) © Bowness (photo: courtesy of Olivia Hemingway, Tate Photography)

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1
24 June – 25 October 2015.
& Kröller-Müller Museum, Houtkampweg 6, 6731 AW Otterlo, The Netherlands 28 November – 17 April 2016.

Aurora Corio