Barbara Hepworth: Tate Britain

Three things struck me at Tate Britain’s current Barbara Hepworth exhibition ‘Sculpture for a Modern World’ – 1. Her relationship with the landscape and natures’ influence on her work, 2. Her consistent control over her self-image, and 3. Her commissions filling urban landscapes today. In each of the seven exhibition rooms (carving, studio, international modernism, equilibrium, staging sculpture, guarea tropical hardwood and pavilion) Hepworth’s relationship with nature and particularly the seascape of St Ives in Cornwall is palpable, never more so than in room five where a film entitled ‘Figures in Landscape’ describes the sea hollowing out rocks, beautifully echoing Hepworth’s hollowing out of wood and stone in her sculptures. Likewise the exhibition highlights Hepworth’s constant manipulation of how she and her pieces were portrayed to the public, from early on in her career when she carefully organised photo albums of herself and her pieces in her studio with partner and fellow artist Ben Nicholson, to her close interest in how she was represented in the media as her recognition grew, and by the 1950’s her staging of sculptures and creating collages of false backdrops for her pieces. Finally I was surprised to learn how much her art fills the urban landscape, for example her ‘Winged Figure’ erected on the side of the John Lewis building on London’s Oxford Street in 1963 which I walk pass most days oblivious. I appreciated how the exhibition’s loosely chronological approach allows visitors to follow the evolution of Hepworth’s style and her various spiritual, political and personal influences. I also liked that it celebrates the raw materials themselves; tactile marble, lapis lazuli, alabaster, onyx, anhydrite, ironstone, hoptonwood stone, fossil stone, teak, elm, plane, Burmese wood, African blackwood, and finally bronze (a material little used until the end of Hepworth’s career) are all displayed to great effect.

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