Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) has a long awaited retrospective at Tate Britain, as well as a complementary exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield. Tate Britain’s now former Director Penelope Curtis holds an MA on Hepworth and co-curated the show with Chris Stevens. We were privileged to hear directly from her. In my view, Curtis, as a zealous student, was too keen to show Hepworth’s context by including works by her peers and predecessors in the exhibition. Chris Stevens was not in favour of showing too many male artists alongside Hepworth’s works, according to Curtis.
Dame Barbara Hepworth Pelagos 1946 Part painted wood and strings object: 430 x 460 x 385 mm, 15.2 kg Presented by the artist 1964 © Bowness, Hepworth Estate
Barbara Hepworth’s specificity was that she carved herself. Carving typically involves using tools to shape a form by cutting or scraping away from a solid material such as stone or wood (source: Tate). Curtis explained that direct carving was typically outsourced: it was easy for small/one block forms but direct carvers did not always prove good.
In the first rooms, Tate Britain boasts Hepworth’s diversity of materials, including exotic wood, alabaster, and serravezza marble (as opposed to Carrara marble), which I think she polished to perfection. Shapes that appear to float, are in fact several shapes linked together in one sculpture by nails. I think she also cleverly used natural wood lines, exemplifying her skilful use of materials. I felt bronze was wasted on her, as seen in the last room ‘Single Form (Eikon)’ 1937-38.
The influence of her husband Ben Nicholson is demonstrated in her line incision, depicting some facial features on her sculptures. Archival photographs in room 2 show both artists and their works in the studio. The Equilibrium room shows the “classical” Hepworth, in the mid-1940s, when she hollowed out wood and applied colour on concave forms.
Hepworth Wakefield curator Eleanor Clayton worked in parallel with Penelope Curtis and was glad Tate decided to halt its exhibition in 1965 with the Rietveld Pavilion. As a result, Hepworth Wakefield in the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle shows a small exhibition complementary to its own permanent collection of Hepworth sculptures and Tate exhibition. Hepworth experimented later in her life with different materials, working in bronze, slate and even gold.
Mincarlo, Three Curves with Strings, 1971 (18 carat gold)
Clayton decided to show Hepworth works like the artist presented her sculptures, on bricks. It ended as an anecdotal challenge as she struggled to find light colours and went through several builders, including one who luckily had a leftover supply of hundreds of bricks!
Both exhibitions are well worth seeing, even though Tate Britain’s exhibition could have done without other artists’ works and more works from Barbara Hepworth herself. ‘Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World’ runs at Tate Britain until 25 October 2015. ‘A Greater Freedom: Hepworth 1965-1975’ is presented at the Hepworth Wakefield until April 2016.