It is impossible to separate Barbara Hepworth’s work from its method. Although she was far from the first artist to choose carving over other methods of sculpture, it remained a less popular and prestige method, and her choice remains significant.
Carving a sculpture begins with something pre-existing—the wood or stone it is carved from — and consists of changing this thing rather than creating something anew, so the art can never be seen as entirely man made.
Particularly in Hepworth’s early work, the pre-existing shape of the material shows through; later the gloss of polished wood is juxtaposed to the roughness of unsanded wood, painted to better show the texture.
A great deal of Hepworth’s skill is seen in the way the material’s features are brought forwards and made gorgeous and tangible. The transformation is rooted in the natural.
Hepworth photographed her work, using repeat exposures and collage to show it from many angles, and stuck pictures of her sculptures onto photographs of gardens both private and public.
The way the art looked in context was important. When art was commissioned she took the context in which it would be displayed into account while designing and making the sculptures.
This exhibition ends with a recreation of part of the Rietveld Pavilion, which was built in 1955 in the Netherlands. The brutalist pavilion is constructed from concrete blocks, glass and metal beams and is located in a large park, surrounded by trees.
It is clearly suitable for Hepworth’s art, and it has been used since its beginnings to showcase many of her sculptures. She wrote that it gave her “such a sense of happiness and brightness that it is quite difficult for [her] to talk about it”.
The recreation in the Tate, however, is in many ways lacking. One wall is covered in a photograph of a leafy park, and concrete blocks give some impression of what the pavilion might be like.
However, with all the emphasis on setting and staging, the exhibition seems like a poor example.
The photograph of trees, film showing Hepworth carving grand sculptures by the sea at her home in St Ives, and the collages she made all serve to demonstrate how much better suited Hepworth’s art is to the outdoors.
It is wonderful to see Hepworth recognised with a large, dedicated exhibition. However, her art is more at home not only in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, but on Oxford Street, attached to the outside wall of John Lewis, than it is in the enclosed spaces the Tate chose to show it in.