The tactile, feminine works of Barabara Hepworth show her intimate relationship with natureby Emma Crichton-Miller / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
It is nearly 50 years since a major exhibition of the work of sculptor Barbara Hepworth opened in London. In 1968, when Hepworth, then 65, was at the height of her international fame, the Tate organised a full retrospective. Hepworth had been created a Dame of the British Empire in 1965. A year earlier, her magisterial Single Form (1961-4), a memorial in bronze to Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, had been unveiled outside the UN Headquarters in New York. In 1975 a Guardian obituary, following her appalling accidental death in a blaze in her studio, judged her “probably the most significant woman artist in the history of art to this day.” And yet, almost overnight, Hepworth fell from critical attention.
Throughout her career her work had been accompanied by a murmur of interpretative writings from other artists, including Henry Moore and Paul Nash, and from influential critics such as Herbert Read and Adrian Stokes, as well as by a steady stream of interviews, photographs and films. Suddenly, there was silence. It was as if the strong sea wind which she had so loved, buffeting and blowing over the Cornish peninsula where she had lived since 1939, had, on her death, abruptly dropped; as if her hard-won mastery of craft and materials, her passionate articulation of fundamental ideas about sculpture, no longer had any bearing. What had carving and abstraction to do with Richard Long’s walks or Gilbert and George’s performances as “living sculptures”? While Moore, five years her elder, managed his own transition from worldwide celebrity to elder statesman, and continued to exert a strong if often resisted influence on younger artists, Hepworth seemingly ceased to be relevant.
This summer, in Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (24th June to 25th October), Tate Britain acknowledges a new mood. Over the last 20 years, since a groundbreaking exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 1994, curated by Penelope Curtis, now ex-Director of Tate Britain and co-curator of this exhibition, a younger generation of art historians has discovered alternative ways of understanding Hepworth’s legacy. A centennial flurry of exhibitions in 2003—at the New Art Centre, Roche Court; Yorkshire Sculpture Park; Wakefield City Art Gallery; and Tate St Ives, which has had guardianship since 1980 of her studio—reminded the public of the…