The Tate Britain's exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for the Modern World has been unveiled as the largest London show of Hepworth's work since 1968. Although this is true, it appears slightly misleading & implies the Tate are rediscovering this notable modernist sculptor/artist, rescuing her work from obscurity. In fact Hepworth's work is reasonably well travelled in recent times providing the basis for which to compare the Tate's presentation of the artist's major works.
Hepworth is intrinsically linked to the Modernist movement adopting a distinct style baring little relation to traditional figurative sculptures carved from bronze. She built upon the work of sculptors such as Romanian Constantin Brancusi, exploring different techniques during the industrial period of change. Her preference for carving stone & wood was innovative of the time & connected their viewer to the true inspiration behind her work, the landscape.
Studying at Leeds school of Art Hepworth met Henry Moore in 1920 & was to become a life-long respected rival. Similarities were cast between the two throughout their career's, although Hepworth's work is considered to be more abstract in nature. This comparison remains true of the present day with Moore's work present in the show in the form of Seated Girl (1931) amongst others.
This chronological survey begins with smaller carved figurative works of the 1920s. Here, Hepworth is accompanied by the likes of Henry Moore & Jacob Epstein. The smaller pieces require closer inspection, but to the disdain of most, this observation is hampered as they are enclosed within transparent boxes, presumably for protection. The barrier that this creates greatly affects the viewing experience. Unable to breath the same air as these figures, to experience them as they were designed to be experienced.
The show does see a gradual increase in scale, which works well. Moving towards the artist's works of the 1950s & 60s sculptures grow larger in size & abstract in form. Releasing them from the confines of a box provides a more intimate, less prescribed encounter. This entices the viewer to fully appreciate shape, line & contour as you are able to fully interact with each piece.
<< Curved Form (Delphi) 1955 Curved Form (Trevalgan) 1956 >>
<< Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red) 1943 Oval Form (Trezion)' 1961-63 >>
As the show develops you find yourself bonding more & more with Hepworth the Sculptor. The walls in the last gallery have been decorated with photographic prints of trees & greenery to recreate a sense of the outdoors. Hepworth was known to experiment with photography with a self-photogram she created in the 1930s on show alongside experimental photographic collages & double exposures all on show for the very first time.
Curators, Chris Stephens & Penelope Curtis (Director of Tate Britain) have succeeded with uniting key pieces to produce a fascinating insight into Hepworth's work. This, of course, is made easier since the Barbara Hepworth Museum came under the control of the Tate in 1980.
You cannot help, but feel that Hepworth's sculptures respond to their environment breathing life, renewing one another. Compared with last year's exhibition at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Barbara Hepworth: Within the Landscape, the Tate Britain's rendition lacks the true ingredient, which invigorates the sculptor's work – the landscape. Those confined to transparent containers feel somehow restrained, lacking the vital wow-factor that can be experienced by viewing the sculptor's work in appropriate surroundings. The lack of natural light to interact playfully with also deprives you of their true value. Of course, you work with what you have available & Tate Britain offers a fantastic viewing experience for those who do attend.