Exhibitions: Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, June 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World

Tate Britain, until 25 October

In the last two decades of her life, Barbara Hepworth was a big figure in the world of art. A 21-foot bronze of hers stands outside the UN headquarters in New York, emblematic of her friendship with secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld -- a Hepworth collector -- and of her international fame.

This was how a modern monument looked half a century ago: abstract but organic, romantic but starkly simplified. Since Hepworth's death, however, her status has become less clear: was she a towering giant of modern sculpture or relatively minor, a slightly dreary relic of post-war Britain? Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World at Tate Britain does not quite supply the answer. But it does throw some revealing sidelights on her art and career.

Since the dawn of the modern age -- when sculptures began to come out of the niche, off the altar and down from the plinth -- there has been a nagging question: where on earth to put the stuff? The exhibition reveals how concerned Hepworth herself was with this problem. On show are a series of collages in which she pasted photographs of small pieces into various spots: in woodland, in the garden of a modernist house.

With a Hepworth the surroundings are critical (which is why a verdict on her is hard to reach). They need to be natural, but not too close to her sources of inspiration. Once, having climbed down the cliffs at Zennor in Cornwall, I came across a remote cove. It was filled with large brown boulders, hollowed and rounded by the sea. In other words, I had stumbled on a whole beach of natural Barbara Hepworths. But putting a real sculpture by the artist there would be like hanging Constable's 'Hay Wain' on the towpath at Flatford.

The truth is, I think, that big Hepworth pieces are at their best -- as they are in the garden of her old studio in St Ives -- when seen outdoors amid greenery. But they harmonise much more awkwardly with bricks and concrete. Her 'Winged Figure' (1963) clings to the wall of John Lewis on Oxford Street like a giant bat, accidentally crash-landed on the shop.

The last room of the Tate exhibition tackles the question of Hepworth's difficult relationship with architecture (for which she firmly blamed the architects). Boldly, but eccentrically, the curators have reconstructed part of the exhibition from 1965 at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the central Netherlands. …

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