Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

unnamed-2

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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06676

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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03131

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.

unnamed-4

‘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’.

unnamed

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.

Ben and Winifred Nicholson

The fifteen years from 1920 (when they met) to 1935 were formative ones for both Ben and Winifred.  The young couple were finding their way in life and in art, travelling to Lugano, settling in Cumberland, then discovering St. Ives; only in 1935 did Ben Nicholson produce his first White Relief which today sums up his art for so many.

1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)The Dulwich Picture Gallery documents their close working relationship with paintings, often of the same subject, placed side by side, and in this way reveals just how considerable was the influence of each on the other.  It is immediately clear that Winifred was the colourist, her combinations of pigments taking precedence over lines and volumes in defining her subject matter; while for Ben the opposite was true – his focus on linearity, form and structure was to the exclusion of almost all colour in some works.  What is so fascinating is to watch how they began to learn from each other, gradually developing a really powerful and individual artistic language.

winifrednicholson-cyclamen-and-primula-ky

The Nicholsons, after their marriage in autumn 1920, spent their winters at Castagnola, above Lake Lugano in Switzerland.  ‘1921-c.1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano)’ (above left) shows Ben’s reaction both to modern French art – especially Cezanne and Picasso – and to the Italian primitives such as Piero della Francesca.  The two rigidly vertical trees create a structural grid for the composition, while the focus point of the cube-like red house emphasises the otherwise limited palette.

In contrast, Winifred was at this time painting works such as ‘Cyclamen and Primula’ (c.1922-23, above right).  The pots of flowers which Ben gave her became the focus of an exploration of the relationship between interior and exterior, still life and landscape; but foremost was still her joyous use of colour which forms the compositional lynchpin. However, here too one can see the influence of Cubism in the peaks of tissue paper that fuse with the distant mountains behind.

Nicholson-Still-Life

In the second gallery, a display case introduces some of the pottery of William Staite Murray.  Initially it is difficult to see why, apart from the friendship between Ben and Murray, his work is included in this dialogue between Ben and Winifred; but the sympathetic hanging subtly makes this clear.  Murray was a modernist potter who first exhibited with Ben in 1927, and with both Ben and Winifred in 1928.  Their domestic still life paintings, such as Ben’s ‘1926 (Still Life – L.L.)’ (above), perfectly complemented – in fact were interchangeable with – the actual physical pots created by Murray.

winifred-nicholson-flower-table-pots-1927While Ben flattens perspective and reduces his palette almost to monochrome, with the paint scraped back so that the flat canvas base is revealed, Winifred continues to paint with thick, luscious pigments and a more conventional pictorial space (as in ‘Flower Table: Pots’, c.1927, right).  Here too are exhibited some of her figure paintings of home life – ‘The Warwick Family’ (c.1926) and ‘Father and Son’ (1927), a tender portrait, the baby’s eyes wide and curious as it is cradled by its father at the tea table.  There are no outlines; all form is created purely from the colours and textures of the paint itself.

winifred-nicholson-northrigg-hill-1926In 1923 the Nicholsons purchased Bankshead, a farmhouse in Cumberland which thereafter became their base, though they continued to travel constantly.  In 1926 they met Christopher Wood who came to stay with them in Cumberland in spring 1928, and became the third party in this partnership of intense artistic experimentation.

get_img.phpDuring the late twenties all three attempted the same scene of of the farmhouse, showing their differences of style as well as how closely they worked together.  In ‘Northrigg Hill’ (c.1926, above centre) Winifred focuses on colour, the only definition to the undulating tones of green and brown, blue and grey, being the dark ribbon of the hedges and the flash of pink on the lane (a colour she recommended to Ben, who used it in a still life – ‘1925 (Jamaique)’).  Wood’s ‘Cumberland Landscape (Northrigg Hill)’ (1928, above left) uses gestural, directional brushstrokes and is perhaps the most detailed of the three – although he was increasingly influenced by Ben’s simplification processes.

(c) DACS - FULL CONSULT; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThese are demonstrated in ‘1930 (Cumberland Farm)’ (right) which reduces the foreground to almost geometrical lines and planes; the house and trees on the horizon line are symbolic focal points of colour and substance amidst the severely rubbed-down canvas.  Another technique Ben developed at this time is seen in ‘1928 (Walton Wood Cottage No.1)’ where he uses great sweeping brushstrokes of a thin pale wash as a background, with faux-naif trees and a horse painted on top with precision.

wn-summerIn summer 1928 the Nicholsons were invited to stay with friends at Feock on the south coast of Cornwall, where they were joined by Wood and his muse, Frosca.  They painted views of Pill Creek, Winifred letting her vivid sense of colour run free – as in ‘Summer’ (1928, left), in which the turquoise water seeps into the background of the floral display to the fore and between the trees and cottages on the far bank.  Ben sketched the scenes of boats and harbours, but was unable to render convincing movement; he finally achieved this in his painting of the same spot, ‘1928 (Pill Creek)’.  This is a sombre and mysterious scene, and uses his characteristic techniques, with swirling brushstrokes of wash animating the background, then extensive rubbing-back to the pale gesso ground, and the shadowy trees and boat simply delineated in pencil.

boat-on-a-stormy-sea

This painting was probably done from memory back in London, by which time Ben had met Alfred Wallis – as is suggested by the primitive representation of the sailing boat.  All three artists moved on to St. Ives in September 1928, the Nicholsons overlooking the harbour, and Wood on Porthmeor beach.  Their work from this period shows the decisive influence that Wallis had, to a greater or lesser extent, on them all.  For Winifred, this is most evident in ‘Boat on a Stormy Sea’ (1928, above right).  The waves rendered in loose watery brushstrokes shows a wonderful freedom of handling, while the spray of the breakers and around the little boat is thick and opaque, yet with a wonderful sense of movement.

ben-nicholson-porthmeor-beach-st-ives-19281Ben, too, began to use more impasto paint against his spare backgrounds, thus anchoring and defining his boats so that they seem to move believably through the water – for instance in ‘1928 (Porthmeor Beach, St. Ives)’ (left).  He also includes Godrevy Island with its lighthouse in the top centre-right, which was a distinctive feature of Wallis’s compositions.

The final room is a hurried epilogue describing the separate paths that the artists took after these fruitful years of mutual exchange and inspiration.  ‘Le Phare’ (1929) and ‘Zebra and Parachute’ (1930) show Wood developing a surrealist approach, using increasingly odd juxtapositions, before his suicide in 1930.  ac7d48b038a250bb59f5ba3df1872e3b

Winifred, whose personal style was defined from early in her career, continued to produce her exquisite flower paintings.  But ‘Winter – Fishbourne’ (1931-2, right) and ‘Autumn Flowers on a Mantelpiece’ (1932) – if anything more accomplished and refined than ever – are a little pale and melancholy, for Ben had left her in the autumn of 1931 and moved in with Barbara Hepworth.

Interestingly, after moving to Paris in 1932 and befriending such avant-garde artists as Mondrian, Gabo and Helion, Winifred turned to abstraction, again inspiring Ben in his transition to abstract relief paintings – the first was made while staying with her on the Quai d’Auteuil.  It seems unfair that Winifred, who earlier in her career gained more acclaim, and supported and encouraged Ben until the point when his career took off, should be allowed to slide into the shade, eclipsed by the ‘St. Ives group’ that Ben and Barbara Hepworth became associated with.  It is a great relief that the Dulwich Picture Gallery gives both an equal voice.