It was in June, I believe, when I saw an item posted by Maureen Doallas on her blog, Writing Without Paper. If you know Maureen, she know she is all things art, and this item had to do with an exhibition at the Tate Britain on the work of sculptor Barbara Hepworth. I checked the link and made a note of it, since we were planning a vacation in London and would be there while the exhibition was still on (it closed on Oct. 25).
I was not familiar with Barbara Hepworth’s work. I wasn’t familiar with 20th century sculpture. And I wasn’t sure what I thought about the modernist / international style of sculpture. But these are actually good reasons to see an exhibition, and I did add it to the list of “possibles” to see.
Early one morning during the first week we were there, I was power-walking in Pimlico and went right by the Tate Britain. I saw the banner for the Hepworth exhibition, and decided I would try to make time for it. A few days later, I did. (Instead of walking, I took the tube from St. James’s Park to Victoria Station, and from Victoria Station to Pimlico.) Three blocks later, I was at the Tate, paid my admission for Hepworth, and went in.
Barbara Hepworth in 1934 with ‘Mother and Child’ (Getty Images)
Born in 1903 in Yorkshire, Hepworth was interested in art from a young age. By 17, she was studying at the Leeds School of Art, and moved to London shortly after, to study at the Royal College of Art. She fell in love with and eventually lived with sculptor John Skeaping, with whom she had a son. They shared studio space. The relationship lasted until she met and fell in love with Ben Nicholson, with whom she had triplets. In the years leading up to World War II, Hepworth was making a name for herself (along with sculptors like Henry Moore), and working in Modernism and what was called the International Style.
After the war, her reputation grew. She and Nicholson were divorced in 1951. She established her studio in St. Ives in Cornwall, and executed a number of commissions for the United Nations, art centers, sculpture parks and other organizations. She died in a fire in her studio in 1975.
Large and Small Form, 1934; the Piers Art Centre, Orkney.
The show was arranged in six largish rooms, and mostly (but not entirely) in chronological order. The first room was mostly smaller, table-top pieces, carvings in wood and stone. The larger pieces came at the end, but the exhibition was mostly organized by themes – carving, studio, international modernism, equilibrium, staging sculpture, and pavilion. Hepworth also worked in brass, especially for outdoor installations.
Walking from room to room, one could how she developed concepts of form, including the human form. Some of the wooden pieces suggested an African influence, but the spherical shapes she developed were captivating. I couldn’t tell you what they represented, but I was nonetheless captivated by several of the pieces, particularly in the international modernism and equilibrium rooms. And I was struck by the sheer beauty of many of the sculptures she produced. (For an extra cost, which I paid, the Tate had a very helpful audio guide.)
I bought a book about Hepworth, British Artists: Barbara Hepworth by Penelope Curtis, and I wish I had been able to read it before seeing the show. Curtis provides an overview of Hepworth-s life and work, a critical history, and the influence she’s had, all in less than 100 pages but filled with photographs of her sculptures. It’s an excellent introduction to the artist and international modernism.
I’m glad I went. I learned something about a period and its sculpture that I knew precious little about. And the Tate knows how to do an exhibition.
Barbara Hepworth at the Tate Britain
Top photograph: Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) by Barbara Hepworth, 1940; Tate Britain.