In Equilibrium exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art preview
The woman who ‘put the hole in modern sculpture’ died alone in her studio in 1975. Barbara Hepworth had battled throat cancer for several years, but it was a fire at the Trewyn Studio in the Cornish seaside town of St Ives who ended his life. The 72-year-old artist was a chain smoker and the fire was probably started by one of the cigarettes she was enjoying in bed.
At the time of his death, Hepworth and Henry Moore were already enthroned as Britain’s greatest sculptors. In America, where she was probably best known as the creator of Single forma monumental bronze installed in the United Nations Plaza in New York, it was greeted by a New York Times obituary as “one of the greatest sculptors in the world”. The article recounted his description of the sculpture as “a three-dimensional projection of primitive feeling: touch, texture, size and scale, hardness and warmth, evocation and compulsion to move, live and love”.
Hepworth’s position in Australia, a place she never visited but where her work influenced a generation of mid-century artists, is more low-key. Examples of his art are held in several state gallery collections – polished bronze Head (Ra) is a popular exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia, for example – but there has never been a major Australian survey. So far, that is. Barbara Hepworth: in balancean exhibition of over 40 works, opens at the Heide Museum of Modern Art on 5 November.
“Hepworth’s influence on Australian sculpture has been widespread, but not well studied,” says Kendrah Morgan, co-curator of In balance. “Her work connects to really elemental ideas about people, landscape and the universe, and she’s a great example of an artist synthesizing big themes into accessible forms.”
The show features many sensual ovoid shapes that she has carved out of wood and stone in her studio in St Ives. Figure (1933) is an early example of his “breakthrough” work, says Heide’s artistic director and co-curator of In balance, Lesley Harding. “She explored the idea that a void or an absence could be filled with meaning.”
Spring (1966), which is a favorite of Harding and Morgan, collects all his ideas in a superb bronze. “He has everything,” Harding says. “The ovoid shape, the color, the piercing and the strings [pieces of cord threaded across the sculpture’s aperture like a harp] which were so important for his intervening period.
The appreciation of the co-curators for the modernist sculptor is profound, especially since the realization of Barbara Hepworth: in balance was far from simple. The pair began working on the show in 2018 with visits to Hepworth’s childhood home in Yorkshire, the studio in St Ives and the rugged Cornish coast that inspired much of their work. They negotiated loans against competition from a major UK show and hung on when COVID hit. Much to their delight, many institutions in Britain, Australia and New Zealand have honored their pledges to loan work despite the decision to move the show from 2021 to 2022.
Heide is the obvious place to hold a Hepworth inquiry, they argue. “She was a contemporary of Heide founders John and Sunday Reed, and they would have known of her work,” says Morgan. “They were interested in the same kind of politics and they read the same kind of books. There is a nice parallel stream.
Hepworth’s personal life suggests that she also shared the Reeds’ disdain for social convention. She met her first husband, sculptor John Skeaping, in Rome and was still married to him when she began an affair with abstract painter Ben Nicholson in 1931. The affair produced triplets three years later.
As Nicholson shuttled between life with Hepworth in London and his wife and three children in Paris, Hepworth felt trapped in a basement flat with three newborn babies and his four-year-old son. Skeaping. “I was scared for the first time in my life,” she wrote.
Desperate to continue making art, she made the difficult decision to allow her babies to be kept in a kindergarten. The episode was interpreted as the work of a coldly ambitious woman who chose art over motherhood. But letters published in 2020 reveal both her deep love for infants and the agony she suffered debating whether to let others care for them. She had contact with them later in life and her works often reflect the significance of the number three. Critics have speculated that works such as those from 1973 Group of three magic stoneswhich will be presented at Heide, are a direct reference to triplets.
Harding recognizes the need for an exhibition to strike a balance between the artist’s story and his work. “You can’t talk about art without talking about the life of the artist,” she says. But it’s also true that female artists have been defined by their relationships to a much greater extent than their male counterparts.
Which brings us to Henry Moore. The tendency to compare and contrast Hepworth to a man she first met when she was a student at Leeds School of Art, began during her lifetime and did her some favors. They mixed in the same artistic circles and vacationed together in Norfolk with mutual friends. But as their stars rose, comparisons between their works were often detrimental to him. When Hepworth represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1950 – two years after Moore – some commentators took her for his pupil. In fact, Hepworth “bore” his first work in 1931; Moore followed suit 12 months later. Yet it was Moore, a staunch and vocal supporter of his own work, who declared 1932 “the year of the hole”.
Hepworth, happily based in St Ives, was sometimes seen as a provincial artist, while Moore was a global art star with strong connections to the art establishment. In 2018 it was revealed that he had actively undermined Hepworth when the Tate Gallery board considered buying one of his wooden works. Moore, a Tate administrator at the time, wrote: “If the sculpture [was] anything more than that would be bad business. His intervention was effective and the purchase was abandoned.
Art historian Dr Sophie Bowness, who is Hepworth’s granddaughter, agrees the incident happened at a time when her grandmother was short on money and therefore ‘had a real impact’ . “It doesn’t paint a good picture of Henry,” she says.
Hepworth sometimes felt unsupported by key institutions such as the Tate Gallery and the British Council, Bowness says. “Both favored Moore to a degree that we can now view as unbalanced and unfair,” she says. “But Hepworth and Moore are very different artists, and the constant and indiscriminate coupling of her with Moore, or the presentation of her as an epigone of Moore, in the past and to some extent still today, is very tedious and inaccurate.
Better, then, to recognize Hepworth’s colorful milieu from afar, but celebrate his art for its own sake. It’s not difficult, says Harding. “I love art that moves me; I like having a relationship with him. I think people who think they don’t like abstract work will be pleasantly surprised to find a truly human dimension to it.
Barbara Hepworth: in balance is at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, from November 5 to March 13.
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