When you think of sculpture there are two names that automatically spring to mind: Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. This exhibition at Tate Britain showcases some of the very best of Hepworth’s work, tracing her career from the very beginning.

Barbara Hepworth, Pelagos 1946. Tate © Bowness

Hepworth originally emerged as part of the new generation of sculptors in the late 1920’s, with her work becoming increasingly more abstract as her career went on before thinking of her work in terms of fitting in with the landscape after her move to Cornwall.

The first room in this expansive display of her work is focused on her carving – from animals to torsos to people and really captures Hepworth’s early style as she explored working with stone and wood. This room is filled with plenty of compare and contrast with other sculptors around at the time such as Jacob Epstein, whose Doves sculpture (1914-1915) is beautifully carved and contrasts nicely with Hepworth’s version which shows even at this stage which direction her work would take.

Her sculpture Toad (1928) shows off her ability and confidence in working with stone almost effortlessly and is charming to look at. However, it is a shame that not more of the exhibition is so charming to look at.

This is not to say that the work itself is bad, but the way in which it has been displayed and treated is not particularly effective – especially if you are visiting with no real knowledge of Hepworth’s work. While there is information available on the walls, it feels a bit vague and not as informative as it could have been and leaves you feeling cold in places.

However, the exhibition is at its strongest when it comes to the studio section of the display, focusing on the time she spent living and working with painter Ben Nicholson allowing visitors to see the way in which their work matched and worked well together but also the differences in the way they saw abstract art. It is here that we also get a proper documentation of the way in which they worked as individuals and together through photograph albums that they put together from their first meeting.

The way in which the sculpture has been displayed is also another way in which the exhibition raises curiosity in the visitor, forcing them to walk all the way around the pieces to get the full impact of the work itself.

Yet the main point is that Hepworth always managed to stay one step ahead and how her work still fits in with the modern world that we have got today but this doesn’t seem to be argued properly in Sculpture for a Modern World. For example, later in life she focused more on the way in which her pieces would fit into the landscape and documented this in a series of photo-collages, revealing how she would like her pieces to be displayed but her voice doesn’t come through enough which is a shame.

Photo-collage with Helicoids in Sphere in the entrance hall of flats designed by Alfred and Emil Roth and Marcel Breuer at Doldertal, Zurich 1939. Barbara Hepworth. © The Hepworth Photograph Collection

While it is a beautiful display of work, by the end of the exhibition visitors don’t really get a sense of Hepworth as a person or an artist and it doesn’t seem to be making a point about her career and could have been presented in a better way. Yet if you just want admire an extraordinary body of work that she created throughout her career, then do pay a visit.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World is on display at Tate Britain until the 25th October. 


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