Barabara Hepworth is on par with Henry Moore as one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century sculptors and Tate Britain celebrates her life and work in a major retrospective exhibition which opened this week.
The exhibition presents different aspects of her work as her life and career developed. The first room focuses on carved sculptures, often of animals, by many of Hepworth’s contemporaries with a few by Hepworth herself. It makes the point that carved sculpture is often under-appreciated in the art world but it allows a connection with the grain and structure of the material, providing a hint of what is to come in the rest of the exhibition. Hepworth takes over in the subsequent galleries as her work develops in size and form, including drawings and her views on the positioning of her sculpture – shown in sketches, photographs and film. A penultimate room is dedicated to her unique work created from great logs with the final room – a triumph of the curators – creating the atmosphere of the Rietveld Pavilion in the Netherlands, setting her work back in the era in which they were created.
The exhibition entrance is guarded by her sculpture “Squares with Two Circles“. If this selection of Hepworth’s work has one weakness, it is that there are not more of her large sculptures – the Duveen Galleries upstairs would have been a superb location for these.
Small things irritate; this exhibition does it in two ways. After the first gallery , the visitor realises that sculptures which are not attributed are in fact all Hepworth’s, despite the inconsistency in the labelling. Worse is the positioning of labels; presumably chosen not to distract the viewers from the sculptures, but they are unpredictable and extremely irritating to find, usually on the fourth side of a plinth and some visitors actually want to read the label before we view the work, not have to search round like a treasure hunt.
Upstairs in the Duveen Galleries are works of an entirely different form. Hepworth has a permanence and reinforces the structure of the natural materials as she creates space in solid forms. Christina Mackie’s work in the Duveen galleries uses colour and light in a way that is fleeting, temporary and of the moment, blurring the senses between our world and what we might imagine.