WAKEFIELD, England — The sculptor Barbara Hepworth was born in the former mill town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in 1921, and it is at the Hepworth Wakefield, a gallery named in her honor, which was created 10 years ago by the architect David Chipperfield in the pleasing shape of a jostle of wonky, gray cubes partly surrounded by a river (it’s a little like a jangly Modernist take on a moated castle keep), that her work is being celebrated in a thoroughgoing retrospective. 

The exhibition, Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, is both an examination of some of the best of her artworks and a spasmodic account of her life. This is a place where the outdoors are always trying to get a look in. A weeping willow thrashes in the wind just beyond the window. Houseboats are nestled into the river bank, snooped on by a giant yellow crane. 

The exhibition has no catalogue. It does one better than that. A new book by its curator, Eleanor Clayton, also called Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life (Thames & Hudson, 2021), is the perfect companion to, and an extensive in-depth commentary upon, everything that we see across the gallery’s 10 well-lit spaces (natural light is at play everywhere in the show), which are all rather different from each other. Nowhere do we find ourselves cabined by an easy, lazy rectangle. There is room here for nothing but the works of Hepworth over the next few months. It’s more than enough.

Barbara Hepworth at work on the plaster for Oval Form (Trezion), 1963 (courtesy Bowness) Photograph: Val Wilmer

The Hepworth is also the permanent home of the Hepworth Family Gift, which comprises a selection of original plasters for a number of her major sculptures, including “Single Form” (1961-64), the monumental bronze sited outside the United Nations Building in New York, along with photographs, tools (gimlet, files, spirit level, T-square, cheese grater), a thoroughly pummeled work bench (she was a direct carver), working models, a cast of the artist’s left hand (“my thinking hand,” she once said), and her own collection of ancient objects of inspiration, which include a stone Cycladic head and a female terra cotta figure from the early Bronze Age. All this marvelous maker’s medley has been included in the exhibition too. The sight of it all laid out for our delectation thoroughly grounds us in her working life. 

The exhibition has many moments of intimacy: family photographs, early paintings that she made while holidaying on the coast of Yorkshire. Her native county made Hepworth who she was. The rhythms of its hills shaped her vision and informed her practice. As a child, she would travel with her father, the county surveyor, around the West Riding, companioned by, and soaking up, the ancientness of its landscapes. Yorkshire also dictated her character. She had a no-nonsense way of talking. She felt, lifelong, the full force of being discriminated against as a woman artist, and she spoke her mind about it. 

Barbara Hepworth, “Forms in Movement (Galliard)” (1956) Private collection (© Bowness) Photograph: Ioana Marinescu

Hepworth is best known as a sculptor of abstract forms, but even at her most abstract, she is never austere. Her smooth and elegant shapeliness never gives off a chill. The exhibition’s first room is a broad, chronological anthology of some of her finest works. It shows off her preferred materials: stone, wood of many kinds, bronze. It presents examples of the kinds of forms that she most favored, and to which she repeatedly returned, finding them creatively inexhaustible. 

The single form. The double form. The pierced form. The enclosed form. There is intimacy here. There is also what she would have described as universality, a recognition of the impact of ideas of the infinite upon the finite, how the physical is penetrated by the spiritual. 

Hepworth’s commitment to Christian Science heavily influenced her work. The spiritual world was the real world for her. Some of her earliest works are figurative, and tend to show how the figure relates to the natural world. Later she edged toward abstraction and to the creation of a kind of sculpture that seems to generalize rather than particularize. 

Barbara Hepworth, “Spring” (1966) © Bowness, photograph: Jerry Hardman-Jones)

All this formal play, formal questing, seems to have broadened her perspective. What you may notice in this first room is that there is no fixed viewpoint from which Hepworth’s works are to be appreciated. No matter what your angle of view, you will always be surprised by some quality that looks and feels refreshingly singular. She is forever trying to work toward a way of being in sympathy with, and showing sympathy for, each new material, be it Pinkardo African black wood or Serravezza marble, teak or alabaster. Each material seems to offer up new and ever quickening possibilities.

She trained first in Yorkshire alongside Henry Moore, and then at the Royal College in London. By the 1930s, she was in the company of a whole network of European Modernists, from Jean Arp (who seemed able to fuse landscape with the idea of the human form) to Brancusi. Her forms became more fluid. She began to make multi-part sculptures, where one form nestles into another. 

The spirit of the Bauhaus fed into her thinking and her making, the idea that fine art and good craftsmanship are part of the same endeavor. That art serves a social purpose. It plays an important role in the fight against tyranny. Abstract forms have an impact upon the way we live our lives. They can sow seeds of harmony. She studied crystalline forms. They seemed to offer a way of bringing together ideas of the tangible and the intangible. 

Barbara Hepworth, “Mother and Child” (1934) Purchased by Wakefield Corporation in 1951 (© Bowness)

In the later 1940s, she made a dramatic return to two-dimensional figurative work in a series of hospital drawings and paintings, which rank among her finest achievements. A visit to a hospital brought this about. She observed a team of surgeons working, and admired the quality of their collaborative spirit, that seamless, concentrated shift from mind to eye to hand. 

Later she diversified still more, making works in response to music and dance, two of her abiding loves. Her figure of Apollo, created for Michael Tippett’s opera Midsummer Marriage (1955), is an agitated, dancing thing created from threads of metal. 

As she aged, so she changed and changed again, responding to the excitements of the Space Age, rising to the challenge of ever larger and more monumental commissions. She stuck at it, doggedly. And England’s crusty old patriarchy acknowledged her importance in the end by making her the Tate Gallery’s very first female trustee.

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life continues at the Hepworth Wakefield (Gallery Walk, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England) through February 27.

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life by Eleanor Clayton (2021) is published by Thames and Hudson and available online and in bookstores on July 13. The UK version is now available at thamesandhudson.com

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...