Daily Visual 24.06.15: Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

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Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World opened today at Tate Britain. The exhibition will run until 25 October. It is the first major Hepworth exhibition in London for almost fifty years. Owing to this, several previews cast the exhibition almost as the rehabilitation of a neglected artist: Hepworth brought ‘out of the shadows and back in focus’. Taking a different perspective, explaining the focus of the exhibition’s narrative, its curators Chris Stephens and Penelope Curtis have posited the popular conception of Hepworth as one interwoven with her later years in St Ives.

Meanwhile a swathe of early reviews of Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World have criticised the exhibition for showcasing the artist’s work – conceived as ‘one with nature’, ‘like an invigorating walk by the sea’, ‘tactile’, ‘nurturing’, and ‘inextricably linked to the earth’ – in vitrines, glass or perspex cases. These cases purportedly withhold the essential natural and democratic virtues of Hepworth’s art.

Taken together, the three complaints – Hepworth as a neglected artist; Hepworth conceived narrowly as an artist of St Ives; and Hepworth’s work shown removed from its proper natural setting – equally ignore Hepworth’s tremendous presence in Yorkshire.

Hepworth was born in Wakefield in 1903, and went to school there before studying at Leeds School of Art from 1920. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park – which has been around since 1977, and was voted the UK’s Museum of the Year for 2014 – is an open-air gallery which displays Hepworth’s sculpture across five-hundred acres of parkland and woodland, with halls and chapels, hills and lakes serving as the backdrop. The Hepworth Wakefield, which opened in her name in May 2011, displays a rotating collection of Hepworth’s art – from the full set of her graphic works on paper, to original sculptures and the prototype of Winged Figure – in a modernist building clad in pigmented concrete, with angular ceilings and large windows, on a site overlooking the River Calder.

Placing many of Hepworth’s earlier and smaller works, in stone and in wood, inside vitrines may well be a mistake – even if the sense of her as an artist ‘one with nature’ stems largely from her years in St Ives. Hepworth moved to Cornwall with her husband and children after the onset of World War II, staying first in Carbis Bay; before in 1949 she bought Trewyn Studio in St Ives, living there from December 1950 until her death in 1975.

During the war, with neither the time, the space, nor the money to carve, Hepworth took up life drawing. There are photographs of her sketching perched atop Rosewall, a hill high above St Ives. After the war ended, she resumed carving in stone and wood. Films shot through her later life show Hepworth carving and garnering inspiration in the yard and garden of Trewyn, as well as along St Ives’ beaches.

Still, if there is something natural, outgoing and communicative in the method, in the materiality, and in the hollow forms of Hepworth’s work, there is also something austere and more tautly emotional, and graceful and idealistic in its idiosyncratic line.

The years in St Ives also saw Hepworth take up bronze, accept large-scale public commissions, utilise assistants for the sake of preliminary work, and contribute to national programmes on behalf of her country. She participated in the 1950 Venice Biennale, and in the Festival of Britain in 1951; and in 1959 received the Grand Prix at the Sao Paolo Bienal. In 1963, she produced Winged Figure, in aluminium and steel, for the side of the new John Lewis store on London’s Oxford Street. The sculpture remains mounted on the building today. Single Form, Hepworth’s largest work, was commissioned in 1961 by the United Nations as a memorial to Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. In bronze, it stands outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

One of Hepworth’s favourite settings for her sculpture proved the Rietveld Pavilion, at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. Designed by Gerrit Rietveld, Hepworth’s sculpture was shown as the pavilion’s inaugural exhibition in May 1965. Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World has sought to recreate that pavilion for the climax of the Tate Britain exhibition: an endeavour which meant a Europe-wide search for precisely the right bricks. The last Hepworth exhibition in London took place at the Tate in 1968; and then it was Hepworth who scoured and spent for the right bricks on which to mount her artworks. She also asked the Tate to place plants next to her art.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World intends to serve as both a career retrospective, and an attempt to recontextualise Hepworth as an international artist. It brings together more than 100 works, from her earliest carvings to the major bronze commissions of the 1960s; while featuring previously unseen photography and film from her private studio.