Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain


This is one of those refreshing exhibitions where there is little need to read too much (though Hepworth’s was an interesting life).   Instead one can simply admire the incredible forms that she created, her truth to materials and the aesthetic perfection she achieved through a finely judged balance of volume and weight.  The toad (above, 1928) jumped out at me in the first gallery, for these very reasons: the onyx used is so supremely toad-coloured, and Hepworth’s sensitive carving gives such a strong suggestion of the languorous sliminess of the creature, working with the veins of the stone to delineate his slippery form.  He appears amid a menagerie of animals and birds by those who influenced Hepworth’s early career – Jacob Epstein’s architectural, almost mechanically geometric doves, Henry Moore’s knotted marble serpent, her first husband John Skeaping’s beautiful lapis buffalo and bronze fish, as well as equally sumptuous carvings by artists now virtually unknown such as Alan L. Durst and Elsie Marion Henderson.

Mother and Child 1934 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1993

The second gallery shows Hepworth’s work alongside Ben Nicholson’s, providing a narrative of their fruitful artistic interaction – as well as their domestic relationship, as Hepworth’s profile filters into Nicholson’s otherwise abstract compositions (echoed in her own experiments with photograms, and her touching sculpture ‘Two Heads’), and after giving birth to triplets Hepworth’s sculpture turns increasingly towards motherhood as a subject matter, as in ‘Mother and Child’ (1934, above).

Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) 1935 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980

Then the perspective is broadened as we are invited to consider Hepworth as a key figure in international modernism.  The pieces displayed are entirely abstract, the forms simplified to smooth rounded totems and spheres or geometric solids, placed in harmony (or tension) with one another – ‘Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster)’ (above, 1935) is exemplary, each carefully juxtaposed element as coolly tactile as a wave-worn pebble yet as powerfully elemental as a monolith.


‘Pelagos’ (above, 1946) marks another development in Hepworth’s oeuvre.  After all the horrors of the Second World War, she found the purist abstraction of Constructivism – inspired by friends such as Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – unfulfilling on a human and spiritual level.  Drawings, both abstract and figurative studies of surgeons at work, chart these changing attitudes, a mental process of adaptation.  Her post-war sculpture becomes more organic, evoking natural forms in warm-hued wood, in this case elm with a painted white interior.  Photographs of these sculptures displayed in the Cornish landscape were meticulously choreographed  by Hepworth, whose move to St. Ives at the outbreak of war had a clear impact on her work, made clear in the wave-like curves of ‘Pelagos’.


This decisive attitude to the display of her work is explored further in archival photographs and film, before we return to her experimentation in wood with a gallery devoted to the monumental ‘Guarea’ works.  These enormous chunks of Nigerian tropical hardwood were a gift to Hepworth in the mid 1950s and encouraged her to work on a much bigger scale than she had attempted before.  Having just returned from a trip to Greece, each piece was named after a Greek location, such as ‘Corinthos’ (above, 1954-5). The scented reddish glow of the wood itself, as well as its size, imbue the sculptures with a primitive, religious or mystical aura.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World | Tate Britain 24 June - 25 October 2015 to promote exhibition only ...  Barbara Hepworth Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-63 Bronze 940 x 1440 x 870 mm Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections ©Bowness, Hepworth Estate

I was apprehensive in approaching the final gallery as Tate Britain has a tendency for ludicrous finales, with bizarre installations, multi-media displays or simply irrelevant/inferior contemporary art, in what must be a misguided attempt to make any exhibition ‘up-to-date’ or appealing to children… With Hepworth however we were safe; there was an installation of sorts, but it was relevant and fairly effective. From the 1950s Hepworth was exhibiting internationally and from the late fifties began using bronze which was more hard-wearing and allowed multiple editions; the final gallery recreates Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the Kroller-Muller Museum gardens in the Netherlands where a retrospective of Hepworth’s work took place in 1965.  One of the sculptures displayed there – and now at the Tate – was ‘Oval Form (Trezion)’ (above, 1961-63).  As before, in Cornwall, Hepworth was delighted to see her work positioned within natural and architectural surroundings.  However, to get a real sense of the beauty of these late bronze pieces, one really must visit Hepworth’s garden in St. Ives.

Photographing Barbara Hepworth’s Garden



IMG_0121_1Up the steep cobbled Back Lane in St. Ives, Barbara Hepworth’s studio and garden look out past the church tower, over the ‘island’ of the old town and across the harbour.  It is an idyllic spot, open to the ever-changing Cornish skies and full of verdant foliage and exotic shrubs – amidst which the smooth organic forms of Hepworth’s sculpture sit in comfortable splendour.


The bronze or marble forms might look exquisitely pure in a minimalist whitewashed gallery space or within a modernist architectural piazza, but they truly come alive in the small jungle of this garden, interacting with the twisting stems and softly undulating leaves, the reflections of the lily pond and the dappled light filtering through a network of interlaced branches.


The texture of the sculpture – a perfectly smooth outer shell, the interior moulded or chiselled with a bright greenish patina – reflect the contrasts of rough bark and succulent shiny green leaf.


The pierced forms – the negative volumes giving the heavy materials their vitality and apparent weightlessness – allow the garden to be viewed afresh through each new frame, like a Claudian


glass.  Some perform elegant arabesques like metallic ribbons dancing on the wind, while other sit solid and motionless like ancient totems, in eloquent contrast to the transient spring leaves and flowers.


The vibrant red clusters of Japonica on their twiggy branches complement the coppery turquoise patina in the colours of a woodblock print; the pink-tinted camellia blossoms and their glossy leaves display their delicate allure against a hard bronze backdrop.


Slender bamboo stems form a curtain behind a zen-style arrangement of angular polished bronze forms on pale gravel.  A greenhouse shelters plaster studies surrounded by dusty cacti and geraniums.


Meanwhile the seagulls screech hoarsely and a dark grey cat dozes unconcerned on a cushioned windowsill in the pale north-easterly sunlight.


Modernist Photography at Tate St Ives

In their monochrome, angular formality many of the photographs on display at Tate St Ives closely echo the building itself, and their abstracting of everyday items and natural forms complements the hypnotic rhythm of the waves seen through the vast convex window at its epicentre.  Beyond that, though, what binds them to this small Cornish town?  The curatorial thesis comes from the international modernist element that were drawn to St Ives from the 1920s through to the 1960s by figures such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach.  They have extended this idea to explore the global reach of modernist photography – and in doing so have uncovered a great many artists whose names should be better known.

Metaesquema Tate

South America is the focus of the first gallery; now re-emerging on the contemporary art scene, it is easy to forget that this continent was a centre of artistic innovation in the mid 20th century.  The Tate has done much to put this right, with a recent retrospective of the work of Helio Oiticica at Tate Modern; here Oiticica’s ‘Metaesquema’ (1957, above)  as well as abstract works by Lygia Clark are set alongside the photography of Thomas Farkas, Sameer Makarius, Gaspar Gasparian and Geraldo de Barros.

Vision of Pipes Through a Pipe 1957 by Sameer Makarius 1924-2009


Gaspar GasparianThe play of geometric forms in Makarian’s ‘Vision of Pipes through a Pipe’ (1957, above) and Gasparian’s use of the same motif (left), or in Geraldo de Barros’s ‘Untitled (Telegraph Wires)’ (below left) and rooftops in ‘Granada’ from the early 1950s (below right), abstracts the everyday, using close-up shots, cropping and bird’s-eye views to decontextualise the subject, forcing the focus onto pure line and structure.  Geraldo de Barros - Granada 1951Oiticica’s work meets their aesthetic halfway; the exacting geometry of previous abstract painting is destabilised, the shapes jostle to get out of their grid with the unpredictability of a dry stone wall.  Eventually the Neo-Concrete movement would bring back the sensuality that the robotic abstraction of Suprematism had lost.

Geraldo de Barros -Untitled (telegraph wires) c.1950sNext, one follows a corridor/balcony down which a series of tiny photographs, collectively entitled ‘Objects Reacting Poetically’ (1931-6), are arrayed in a line.  These are the result of a walk taken by Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret and Fernand Leger in which ‘the marvellous in the everyday’ was captured in images of surrealist ‘found objects’.  Amidst these, a more performative, time-based element comes into play in images of a block of ice held up against the light by alternating artists, gradually melting (below).

Les Objets a Reaction Poetique 1931-6

In the gallery below, against the splendid view across the bay, Claude Cahun’s photographs continue the exploration of the key role that surrealism played in modernist photography.  In contrast to surrealists such as Man Ray or to many other of the pioneers exhibited in this exhibition, her technique is secondary to the performative and the incongruous.  She seems to me most akin to Eileen Agar, whose collaged combinations of suggestive objects found in nature with the human and the humorous are echoed in bizarre theatrical tableaux.  I Extend My Arms 1931 or 1932 by Claude Cahun 1894-1954Cahun often used her own body – as in ‘I Extend my Arms’ (1931/2, right) – most famously in self-portraits that question gender identity and the idea of ‘womanliness as a masquerade’ (anticipating Cindy Sherman by over half a century).  The still lifes of dolls or ethnographic artefacts, meanwhile, employ an anthropomorphism that is unsettling, the elements waiting only for the camera’s eye to turn away before starting back to life.

From the surrealist branch of modernism we turn to its opposite, the functionalist, rational modernism of the Bauhaus.  Here, technique regains its position of pre-eminence.  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy experiments with the photogram, while Josef Albers’ preliminary class, ‘Material Studies’, encouraged students to explore the properties of various materials and to photograph the resulting constructions – a perfect illustration of the Bauhaus ethos for unity between the arts.  The Argentinian photographer, Horacio Coppola, studied at the Bauhaus under Walter Peterhans in the 1930s, producing carefully constructed images of everyday objects such as ‘Egg and Twine’ (1932, below), chosen for their pared-down, abstract forms.

Horacio Coppola - Egg & Twine 1932

In this way the influence of Bauhaus modernism spread far and wide, from Argentina to Japan; Iwao Yamawaki was another student there in the 1930s who benefitted from the training in space, material and construction, producing austerely beautiful compositions from simple objects – for instance ‘Set of Bowls’ (1930-32, below left).

Iwao Yamawaki - Set of Bowls 1930-32Yamawaki also specialised in architectural photography akin to Rodchenko’s ‘constructivist’ aesthetic of close cropping and sharp angles.  Among the other photographers represented in the Japanese gallery are Kiyohiko Komura, whose close-up and technically manipulated images of the female body simplify his subject matter into formal arrangements of light and shadow, as in ‘2 Abstract Forms’ (c.1950, below).




And Shikanosuke Yagaki, whose images of blurred light and momentary shadows or reflections epitomise the Japanese aesthetic of ‘wabi-sabi’ – defined by the curators as ’embracing transience and imperfection – a fleeting beauty’.  Illustrated by prints such as ‘Puddle on Pavement’ (1930, below), this appears a concept synonymous with the ‘decisive moment’ of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and with similarly captivating results.

shikanosuke-yagaki-puddle-on-pavement 1930

Moholy-Nagy played a leading part in the Bauhaus, so it is perhaps not surprising that his brand of modernism made a strong impression in Hungary.  The penultimate gallery focuses on some of the lesser known exponents.  Fusing the surreal and the formal/technical strands of modernism, Gyula Holics stages scenes of mundane objects – a pair of spectacles for instance (‘Glasses and Shadow’, c.1955, below) – whose dramatic lighting and intense, claustrophobic perspective  give them a nightmarish quality.

Gyulia Holics - Glasses and Shadow c.1955

Nearby, Georgy Kepes takes the photogram to a new level of invention and ingenuity, playing with light to create intangible echoes of the exquisite form and tension of the Barbara Hepworth sculpture displayed in the centre of the gallery in ‘Leaf and Prism’ (1938, below).  Or impelling a compass and tea strainer to dance as if animated in a Man Ray movie (below right).

Leaf and Prism 1938 by Gy?rgy Kepes 1906-2001




Compass and Strainer Photogram n.d by Gy?rgy Kepes 1906-2001





The final gallery is dedicated to Harry Callaghan. Though Callahan seems an anomaly in many respects, he also ties together some of the threads that run through this exhibition – as well as being linked to that key figure, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, with whom he worked at the Institute of Design in Chicago.  Harry-Callahan-1Nature is abstracted, so that it approaches the effortless pen strokes of a Picasso or Miro sketch (left); the human body becomes an an interplay of light and shadow, formalised yet manifestly sensuous.  Technically, Callahan was an innovator in both black and white photography and in colour – and the deliciously saturated colour dye transfer prints, such as ‘Chicago’ (1951, below), in concluding the show also stand as an indication of modernism’s next move…


Harry Callahn  - Chicago c.1951