In the Summer 2015 issue of Tate Etc magazine, the artist Linder describes how she came to love Hepworth after a night-time visit to the artist’s garden in St Ives:
“As guests, we were encouraged to discover the sculptures purely through touch. Hepworth once said that every piece must be touched – that it was part of the way in which she made her work. So be it, Juno! Through stroking her sculptures in the dark, I fell in love after a lifetime of complete indifference to her work.”
Lucky Linder. For that is the most frustrating thing about this wonderful Tate retrospective of her work. The sweeping curves and flowing surfaces of her work cry out to be stroked, for your fingers to follow the lines and edges, to explore the hollows hidden in shadow. But imagining the cacophony of alarms that would set off, you have to sit on your hands and just look.
Her early work was more representational, like Doves of 1927, but was innovative because she used direct carving. The normal practice was for artists to make a model in clay and then give that to an artisan to carve. But Hepworth, along with her husband John Skeaping, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill did the carving themselves without a transitional model.
It was when she moved from working in stone to working in wood that Hepworth’s style became more vertical and abstract, as in Torso from 1932.
By 1932 Hepworth had separated from Skeaping and started sharing her studio (and home) with Ben Nicholson. Comparing their work from this period is fascinating, as Nicholson’s technique of incised lines is often echoed in some of Hepworth’s sculpture. They also worked on fabric designs woven by the Edinburgh Weavers.
The exhibition includes some wonderful sketches from 1947 of surgeons working in an operating theatre. In the exhibition catalogue, Lucy Kent sees distinct parallels “between the hospital drawings and the abstract sculptures that Hepworth made concurrently”, comparing “the sweeping, self-reflexive curves and interwoven caverns of Pendour” with “the same contained, purposeful movement as the hands depicted moving deftly together, around and within the patient”.
Some of my favourite Hepworth pieces date from this period, including Pelagos and Wave.
I also love her guarea series, carved in the mid-1950s after she was given 17 tons of the tropical hardwood. This allowed her to work on a much larger scale. Peering through the spiralling internal cavity that burrows through Corinthos feels oddly intimate – as if this is what it’s like to be inside a snail shell.
Hepworth had a very strong sense of how her sculptures should sit in their environment. There is a fascinating section on how, in the days before Photoshop, she experimented with photography, using double exposures (one of which graces the catalogue cover) and superimposing photos of her work against different backgrounds of landscape or buildings to evoke how it would look if commissioned on a larger scale.
The exhibition ends with a selection of her bronze pieces shown at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands in 1965.
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World runs at Tate Britain until 25 October 2015.