Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 12, 2016
Penelope Curtis and Chris Stephens, eds. Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World Exh. cat. London: Tate Publishing, 2015. 203 pp.; 131 color ills.; 72 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781849763318)
Exhibition schedule: Tate Britain, June 24–October 25, 2015
Barbara Hepworth. Curved Form (Delphi) (1955). Guarea wood, part painted, with strings. 1067 x 787 x 813 mm. Ulster Museum, Belfast. © Bowness, Hepworth Estate.

When speaking of modern landscape painters, John Ruskin argued that these artists see nature with “totally different eyes” and consequently offer spectators impressions rather than imitations of the natural world (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, New York: Wiley and Halsted, 1858, 75). A century after Ruskin published his influential text, the English sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth similarly stated: “When a sculptor is the spectator . . . the artist tries to find a synthesis of his human experience and the quality of the land-scape” (Barbara Hepworth, A Pictorial Autobiography, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970, 93). Ruskin’s theory, which only analyzes drawings and paintings, sidesteps the role of landscape in the history of sculpture. Hepworth’s statement, by contrast, indirectly asserts that the modern sculptor views the landscape through “twice different” eyes: eyes that not only see the landscape through the lens of modernity, but eyes that conceive of the landscape in three (rather than two) dimensions. The sea or landscape accordingly became a key aspect of Hepworth’s artistic agenda and material output between the 1920s and 1960s—a point that is reiterated throughout the catalogue, gallery guide, and wall texts in Tate Britain’s exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World.

Before visitors even enter the museum, the Tate exhibition poses a pertinent question to its viewers: What makes a world “modern”? Any answer to this query is undoubtedly multivalent and complex, but the show clearly demonstrates that Hepworth’s remarkable sculptures project a modernist aesthetic. And rightly so, as Hepworth enjoyed a considerable international reputation during her lifetime; she represented Britain at the 1950 Venice Biennale, and was commissioned in 1961 to create her largest public sculpture (Single Form, 1961–64) for the United Nations Plaza in New York. The exhibition’s curators, Penelope Curtis and Chris Stephens, additionally provide ample examples of how Hepworth’s aesthetic engaged with sea and landscapes throughout her native Britain, particularly southwest England. It is thus somewhat ironic that exhibition attendees—many, perhaps, viewing Hepworth’s works for the first time—encounter her refined, nature-inspired abstractions within the confined walls of a gallery. To view the whole of her sculptures en plein air (as Hepworth often intended) would certainly be an unfeasible feat for any modern museum, yet to imagine these objects surrounded by nature evokes exciting possibilities.

The exhibition opens with a gallery devoted to Hepworth’s interest in “direct carving,” an appropriate starting point, as this technique was a particular strength of the artist. The focus on direct carving likewise situates Hepworth among a group of modern sculptors invested in a more immediate, tactile relationship with their materials. The first room accordingly displays Hepworth’s early sculptures alongside objects by other British artists—peers and predecessors like Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein. Epstein’s striking marble sculpture Doves (1914–15) is arguably the first stone object to catch the museumgoers’ attention, given its relatively large size and privileged proximity next to the opening wall text. This is unfortunate, as Epstein’s work overshadows Hepworth’s Doves (Group), a considerably smaller marble sculpture from 1927 that stands nearby. Epstein’s birds, blending styles of Art Deco and ancient Egyptian statuary, are subjectively more striking and, given their position nearest the wall text, leave the unintended impression that the marble was actually carved by Hepworth. Adding to the imbalance between the two sculptures, Epstein’s doves sit perched upon an open-air dais, whereas Hepworth’s birds are locked away in an airtight Perspex case—a glasslike “cage” that seemingly suffocates the very spirit that carved these forms.

As with most of the sculptures included in the first gallery, Hepworth’s Doves yearn to breathe, and yet the majority of these weighty objects are housed in museum-quality vitrines to ensure their safety from curious hands. The cases, which are asymmetrically arranged in such a way to force spectators to meander through the gallery space, are also awkwardly excessive, making the room appear visually crowded. Thankfully Hepworth’s Torso (1928), an important early work, is presented sans case, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the artist’s expertise in creating a modernist sculpture that directly engages with the natural forms and textures of the African blackwood from which it was carved.

The richly illustrated exhibition catalogue, with a design and typography that effectively convey the aesthetics of modernism, closely correlates with the exhibition. It includes essays by Curtis and Stephens, as well as texts by contributing scholars Lee Beard, Helena Bonnet, Sophie Bowness, Ann Compton, Inga Fraser, Valerie Holman, Lucy Kent, and Rachel Smith. Beard’s essay, “Reflections on a Relationship: Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, the Early Years,” does a nice job of contextualizing the modernist fecundity that resulted from Hepworth’s romantic and artistic association with her painter-husband. The corresponding gallery in the exhibition—a section titled “Studio”—regrettably does a further disservice to Hepworth’s sculptures, as Nicholson’s polychromatic drawings and paintings have the unplanned effect of distracting the spectator’s eye from the lustrous surface of Hepworth’s more monochromatic objects. Perhaps this is the fault of a viewer who might optically privilege colorful, two-dimensional artworks over three-dimensional sculptures. The end result, however, is a room full of artworks that compete for attention, rather than synthesizing as a marriage of shared ideas and rhythms, which Nicholson had suggested in 1932 of his collaborations with Hepworth.

The exhibition, despite its shortcomings, presents incredible objects for the viewer’s delectation. One particular highpoint is the section titled “Guarea,” where four large-scale, chestnut-colored wood sculptures from the 1950s are reunited in a single room. This section is preceded by a darkened gallery where visitors may view the documentary art film Figures in a Landscape (1953), which staged Hepworth’s sculptures in various natural environments. Interestingly, when transitioning from this gallery to the “Guarea” section, the viewer is immediately enveloped by brightness. Through this deliberate lighting effect, the curators and exhibition designers ingeniously evoke a sense of openness, airiness, and necessary tension between the lightness of the room and the heaviness of the dark-brown sculptures. This striking visual effect is lacking in other sections of the exhibition, but favorably utilized in a space devoted to works that were painstakingly carved from giant logs of tropical guarea wood.

The wall text for the “Guarea” room explains that these sculptures were created during a period that coincides with Hepworth’s travels to Greece, as well as the loss of her son Paul. The text suggests that the guarea works might therefore be read as a catharsis from her maternal mourning, or alternatively, embodiments of the Mediterranean landscape and Greek mythology. The iconography of Curved Form (Delphi), a work from 1955, may be seen to invoke the shape of Orpheus’s fabled lyre, given that the horseshoe-shaped sculpture reveals a white painted interior and ten strings that run diagonally from the top of the object to a carved hollow in the middle. In keeping with the curators’ suggestion that Hepworth may have viewed the guarea pieces as cathartic objects, it is worth noting that the artist herself once noted that: “I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour” (A Pictorial Autobiography, 9; emphasis in original). In putting herself into her work, Hepworth perhaps found the same harmony that exudes from these remarkable pieces of wood.

Similar to Curved Form (Delphi), wooden sculptures containing taut strings are additionally included in a section titled “Equilibrium.” Objects named Wave (1943–44), Pelagos (1946), and Pendour (1947) demonstrate Hepworth’s skill in carving from single blocks of wood, and moreover reinforce her strong connection to natural ecosystems. To this point, “pelagos” means “sea” in Greek, while Pendour is the name of a sandy beach cove in Cornwall—a seascape close to Hepworth’s home and studio in England’s rugged southwestern peninsula. Sculptures in this section likewise benefit from nearby drawings of Hepworth’s abstracted forms, many of which correspond to the three-dimensional objects in “Equilibrium,” and yet these very objects are confined behind museum cases, which seem to restrict the implicit “movement” in sculptures inspired by the ebb and flow of water over land. This notwithstanding, Pendour reveals a polished refinement and mastery of technique that is decidedly not present in other canonical sculptures from the period, particularly Moore’s abstract-figurative works.

The final section, “Pavilion,” juxtaposes six of Hepworth’s bronze “garden” sculptures alongside reconstructed portions of an art pavilion designed by the Dutch architect Gerritt Rietveld in 1955. The Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland later acquired the pavilion, reconstructed the building in the adjacent sculpture garden, and inaugurated the structure during the museum’s 1965 retrospective of Hepworth’s sculptures. Accordingly, this particular section in the Tate exhibition strives to recreate the effect of viewing Hepworth’s works alongside, in front of, and through sections of Rietveld’s garden pavilion. Limited by the size and logistics of the gallery’s architecture, the “Pavilion” section nevertheless does an imaginative job of showcasing Hepworth’s objects in an alternative curatorial environment.

The closing image in this section is not a drawing by Hepworth or one of her sculptural works. Rather, it is a large-scale color photograph of a vibrant green forest, presumably the park surrounding the Kröller-Müller Museum, which fills the entire end wall of the room. In many ways, this final image brings to mind Ruskin’s historical belief that the modern landscape artist must strive for unique impressions, rather than mere imitations. But as a simulacrum, the photograph of trees reminds the viewer that the strength of the Tate’s exhibition is not the semblance of a landscape, but the physicality and yearned-for tactility of sculptures created for a modern world outside the museum’s walls.

Nathan J. Timpano
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Miami