I recently visited two locations, both of which are significant in understanding Barbara Hepworth’s approach as one of Britain’s most important Modernist artists, and both of which will feature in Tate Britain’s forthcoming exhibition Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World.
My first trip was to St. Ives in Cornwall, the remote fishing town that was Hepworth’s home from 1939 to 1975. The area has a history as an artist’s colony stretching back to the nineteenth century, facilitated by the 1877 extension to the Great Western Railway. The duration of the commute from London with a change at St. Erth hasn’t much changed (six hours), though the journey is incredibly beautiful!
As the train turns, the Bay of St. Ives is suddenly revealed, and the Mediterranean light and warmth (St. Ives is one of the sunniest places in the British Isles) is immediately evident when you alight on the platform next to the beach. From there you can spot Godrevy Lighthouse, inspiration for the 1927 novel To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, who visited St. Ives as a child with her family, and a feature of Dudley Shaw Ashton’s 1953 film about Barbara HepworthFigures in a Landscape.
In summer 1939 as the threat of war in Europe was growing, Hepworth left her home in Hampstead, North London and drove with her husband Ben Nicholson and their children to St Ives at the invitation of their friend, the critic Adrian Stokes and his wife, the Scottish-born artist Margaret Mellis. Though their stay was intended to be temporary, the realities of wartime made a return to the capital difficult. Moreover, Hepworth found in St Ives much to be inspired by. During the 1940s Hepworth’s established aesthetic, of related abstract geometric forms, began to soften. She embraced forms that appeared more organic, inspired by the landscape of the Cornish coast, such as Pendour(1947) which, with its hollowed out concavities is reminiscent of the cove of the same name. The environment of St Ives suited Hepworth, as a sculptor, with the warm climate making working outside much easier. In 1949 Hepworth acquired Trewyn Studio (now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden) – providing her with both home and workplace and allowing her more space to produce more ambitious works, as well as a space for display amongst the tropical plants and palms in her garden.
Cornwall is a place of myth and legend (the mermaid of Zennor anyone?) and the standing stones of the Mên-an-Tol and the Nine Maidens near Penzanze provided Hepworth with ancient examples of how sculpture had functioned for humankind in a ritual or civic setting, and also of the simple universal shapes and masses that were to prove an influence for her own work and that of other modernists such as the architect Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus. (His photographs of Stonehenge appeared in the famous 1937 publication,Circle: International Survey of Constructivist Art.)
It was the link between Hepworth and her contemporaries in Europe – especially in relation to architecture – that I explored during my second trip, when I visited the Rietveld Pavilion in the Netherlands. A fellow-modernist, the Dutch designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964) is celebrated in Europe, (there is even a Rietveld app!) where he is best known for his contribution to the De Stijl movement. HisRietveld Schröder House built in 1924 in Utrecht, is a monument to his aesthetic and ingenuity.
In 1955, Rietveld designed an open-air pavilion for the display of sculpture in Sonsbeek Park in the Netherlands and, in 1965 as a memorial following his death, it was decided to rebuild this temporary structure in the grounds of the Kröller-Müller Museum. Barbara Hepworth was the artist who was chosen for the inaugural exhibition in the pavilion and, with the director of the museum Rudi Oxenaar, a location for each of her sculptures around the pavilion was carefully chosen. At the opening party Hepworth claimed, ‘never again will I see my work in such perfect and wonderful conditions and surroundings’
Rietveld used simple, functional ‘off-the-shelf’ builders’ materials to create a structure that merged indoors and outdoors. His pavilion consists of a sequence of spaces and backdrops against which sculpture could be displayed in counterpoint and compliment and, excitingly, a section of his design will be recreated in the final room of the exhibition here at Tate Britain.
The comparison between Hepworth and Rietveld is interesting as his approach to architecture is comparable to Hepworth’s approach to sculpture, both materially and theoretically. Both were also well-known public figures in their later years and, for both, the utopian vision for modern art and architecture first stated in the 1930s became newly relevant in the 1950s and 1960s when Europe and European society was rebuilt in the aftermath of war.
Hepworth’s sculpture Single Form exemplifies this approach. The 1963 bronze version, subtitled Eikon was displayed at the Rietveld Pavilion and can still be found there today. It relates to earlier works with the same title from 1937. The vertical form of the work evokes the ancient standing stones in the Cornish landscape but now, harmoniously positioned in relation to architecture, speaks of Hepworth’s unique vision for humanity in a modern world.
In June, Tate Britain will stage the first major London survey of Barbara Hepworth’s work since 1968. To complement it, the Hepworth gallery in Wakefield opens an exhibition about the sculptor’s last decade
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January 19, 2015 2:33 pm
Tate shows Hepworths unseen since 1960s
©The Hepworth Estate
Sculptures not seen in public since the 1960s will be revealed in an important new exhibition of works by Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain.
The retrospective of the British abstract sculptor will show more than 70 works in bronze, stone and wood, as well as unseen photographic collages used as a creative aid or presentational tool.
Curators said Hepworth works held in private collections had re-emerged into public view for the first time in two generations, thanks to the internet. One early carving, Contemplative Figure (1928), was tracked down to California by curators who found it was still held by the family of the original owner.
Chris Stevens, head of displays at Tate Britain, said: “In the age of Google . . . what might have taken you five years to track down, or not, will take you a few days or weeks.”
The exhibition will show how the leading figure of the modern art movement in the 1930s would take photographs of her works, cut them out and lay them on pictures of modernist buildings or landscapes to picture her sculptures in different contexts. She would also work closely with professional photographers to publicise her work in magazines, scrutinising every aspect of publication.
Penelope Curtis, co-curator and director of Tate Britain, said the photographic archive revealed the depth of Hepworth’s ambition. “We see an artist in control of her image and keen that her work be seen in unexpected and highly prestigious locations.”
Hepworth is closely linked with St Ives, Cornwall, where she sought shelter with her second husband, artist Ben Nicholson, during the London Blitz. After the war she set up a studio in the seaside town, working there until her death in a fire in 1975. Yorkshire, where she grew up, has also claimed the artist as its own, with the creation of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in 2011.
The curators said Hepworth had become unfairly pigeonholed as a purely British artist compared with internationally feted peers such as Henry Moore — an oversight the exhibition would seek to rectify, Mr Stevens said. “It’s forgotten how important an international figure Barbara Hepworth was in the 1950s and 60s, showing all over the world in major venues.”
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, opens at London’s Tate Britain on June 24 and runs until 25 October. It will also tour to museums in the Netherlands and Germany.
Hepworth carved “Mother and Child” whilst pregnant. What artwork would you take your mum to see at Tate?
Give her the joy of Tate this Mother’s Day with a gift membership
Sculptor Barbara Hepworth was born #onthisday in 1903. Here’s her drawing of a nude ow.ly/H2CEC