LONDON — Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World marks one of the last exhibitions backed by the outgoing Tate Britain director, Penelope Curtis. The first major retrospective of Hepworth in London for half a century seeks to revisit this modernist sculptor who has long been overshadowed by her male contemporaries Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and others. It’s very easy to blame institutionalized sexism for the oversight of her significance on an international stage, the show says, and this clearly feels like a pet project for Curtis, who is a specialist in British sculpture.
Finally, Hepworth will be shown as the giant she really is. Except Curtis’s five-year tenure at Tate Britain has not been troublesome for nothing: despite rearranging the permanent collection to critical and public acclaim, a series of curatorial missteps and eyebrow-raising exhibition ideas (see Art Under Attack of 2013, or the weird Ruin Lust of the same year) has caused some critics to despair, with Waldemar Januszczak sensationally calling for her resignation. The curation here is, sadly, no less complicated and ultimately does Hepworth few favors.
The exhibition’s attack is two-pronged in its aim: to revisit Hepworth’s role in the development of international avant-garde sculpture, and to analyze her works in the wider context of the St. Ives landscape, where she lived in the latter part of her life and to which she owed much inspiration. To start, Hepworth’s small studio carvings place her in a trend amongst sculptors in the 1920s to hand-carve everything — harder stones especially — themselves. Considering we mostly associate Hepworth with large, abstract forms, it is a delight to see smaller scale, representational renderings of animals emerge from natural shapes (works that have mostly traveled from private collections: another plus). Yet her undoubtedly charming, squat toad in green onyx pales next to John Skeaping’s (her first husband) mighty sleeping buffalo in lapis lazuli, or a snake by Henry Moore, both of which are displayed adjacent to Hepworth’s work. Certainly, she can hold her own against her male contemporaries, but she doesn’t rise above or add her own ideas to the group.
This resounds throughout the first gallery, not helped by its layout which decides to isolate each sculpture within innumerable infernal Perspex boxes scattered throughout the floor in seemingly random order, as if curated by someone who specialized in crowd flow control (were the curators expecting the record-breaking visitor numbers enjoyed by the blockbuster Steve McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum?). Hepworth’s wood carvings are lost amongst others of similar character and style by Alan L. Durst, Eric Gill, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska — having the captions positioned all over the shop doesn’t help to compare or even identify who sculpted what. This certainly shows how involved and integrated Hepworth was in the modernist movement, yet the arrangement doesn’t make the case for highlighting her talent above anyone else’s. It feels a little empty to find celebration in a female sculptor simply because she can equal her male contemporaries.
The exhibition progresses to the period of Hepworth’s marriage to Ben Nicholson and the artistic interchange that resulted, her pieces encircled (and probably outnumbered) by scores of Nicholson’s drawings and paintings on the walls. There is a certain interest in the exchange of visual language and motifs between the two; however, the comparison threatens to yet again contextualize Hepworth’s work against someone else’s — so far she has not emerged with her own voice. It is by no means intentional, but nonetheless intriguing, that a couple of her rarely seen drawings of surgical operations on first inspection look uncannily like Moore’s own pen and ink washes.
By the decades of the 1920s and ‘30s, however, the sculpture we recognize as distinctly hers emerges: the seemingly impossibly smooth marbles of “Three Forms” (1935), larger scale wood carvings with painted interiors, cut through with harp-like strings. Gone are the imprisoning boxes, and we can enjoy the clean, abstract, and carefully considered disks, blobs, and columns. They express an enormous silent power in their monumental size and form. Perhaps one reason for Hepworth being overlooked is her sculptures’ deceptive simplicity, and a dedication to harmony and restraint as opposed to anything approaching turmoil or conflict. “Pierced Hemisphere” (1937) of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in the North of England, and “Two Segments and a Sphere” (1935–6) from a private New York collection make irresistible use of the highly polished surfaces of wood and marble respectively, eradicating the traces of the clumsy human hand.
These works stand alone, free from comparative works in rooms that seem as clean and free from clutter as the sculptures themselves. Such is their strength it is a shame there is not more exhibition space given over to them, which inadvertently indicates that they really need to be appreciated in the outdoor context as originally intended.
What undermines the show more than anything else is a lack of natural light and the categorical impossibility of a London gallery fulfilling its own criteria of examining Hepworth’s work against the St. Ives landscape. We can admire the polished wood finish of her enormous sculptures underneath the mellow gallery spotlights, yet they do not offer the intended brilliant blue-rich daylight that Hepworth originally conceived her works within, and as such something in our visual and textural understanding of the work is immediately denied us. In the final room, there is a recreation of the pavilion designed by Gerrit Rietveld to house a retrospective of Hepworth’s works at the 1965 Kröller-Müller museum in the Netherlands, with one wall covered with a photograph of trees, as if half-heartedly conveying something of the pavilion’s original natural setting. The model highlights how clinical the whole display now feels.
Sculpture for a Modern World is honorable in its earnest survey of the overshadowed Hepworth. Yet the very settings of the gallery format deny appreciation of her work on a very fundamental level, and in this respect the curators have set themselves an impossible task. Similarly, while proposing her as a greater and more influential sculptor than previously recognized, these curatorial decisions to swamp her with contemporaries have almost the opposite effect. It seems that the biggest recognition she will enjoy remains “Single Form” (1961–4), the 21-foot tall bronze standing outside the United Nations Building in New York, mentioned here in passing in a wall caption.
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World continues at the Tate Britain (Millbank, London SW1P 4RG) through October 25.