Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World. Tate Britain until Oct 15. Review by Barbara Lewis.
Barbara Hepworth said finding Trewyn Studio in St Ives was “a sort of magic”. It provided her with the perfect context to work, in harmony with her surroundings, and to display her sculptures in the best possible light to reveal their contours and depths.
Tate Britain’s exhibition, the first major London retrospective of Hepworth since 1968, doesn’t have the same felicity.
Rather it represents a return to the cramped London studio Hepworth shared with Ben Nicholson, the artist who was her second husband until she divorced him in 1951 and father of her triplets.
We find ourselves confused as her art is jumbled up with that of her contemporaries, not always to flattering effect. Henry Moore’s magnificently physical Snake next to her comparatively ordinary green onyx Toad only serves to make the case for Moore, her life-long artistic rival.
The selection of modern, abstract versions of the Madonna and child theme forgo the chance to draw out the context of Hepworth’s ambivalent attitude to motherhood and female sexuality as her eldest son by her first marriage was killed and her triplets risked standing in the way of her determination to be an internationally-recognised artist in a man’s world.
Finally, we find ourselves confronted with enormous bronzes that can seem crude and overpowering without the landscapes crucial to inspiring Hepworth’s creativity. A cheap-looking forest wall poster at the very end of the exhibition is hardly a substitute for the natural world.
What the exhibition does give us, even if almost accidentally, is a realistic appreciation of the challenges Hepworth faced and of her not particularly appealing efforts to display her work to the best that provide a slightly gauche foretaste of today’s frenzy of spin and self-promotion.
Previously unseen photographs include collages put together by Hepworth to show her works in architectural and landscape settings.
A finer treat is an insight into her fascination with surgery, expressed in her drawings of surgeons at work, almost as if they are sculptors plunging in scalpels instead of chisels to explore the complexity within.
And then of course there is the joy of experiencing a vast array of Hepworth’s sculpture hewn out of materials ranging from lowly fabric to bronze – the ultimate for an artist seeking a profile on the global stage.
For many, the highlights must include Hepworth’s works in warm, flowing, natural wood, such as the subtly-aligned Forms in Echelon, carved from tulipwood.
Further triumphs, even without the space we crave, are the great sweeping forms in Nigerian Guarea hardwood extracted from a 17-ton shipment – a gift from a wise friend who sought to help Hepworth recover from her son’s death through transcendent creativity.
Barbara Lewis © 2015.