A Barbara Hepworth Retrospective Hampered by Her Male Contemporaries

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

Curated from an article written by Olivia McEwan on September 16, 2015 for Hyperallergic.com

 Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World marks one of the last exhibitions backed by the outgoing Tate Britain director, Penelope Curtis. The first major retrospective of Hepworth in London for half a century seeks to revisit this modernist sculptor who has long been overshadowed by her male contemporaries Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and others. It’s very easy to blame institutionalized sexism for the oversight of her significance on an international stage, the show says, and this clearly feels like a pet project for Curtis, who is a specialist in British sculpture.

Finally, Hepworth will be shown as the giant she really is. Except Curtis’s five-year tenure at Tate Britain has not been troublesome for nothing: despite rearranging the permanent collection to critical and public acclaim, a series of curatorial missteps and eyebrow-raising exhibition ideas (see Art Under Attack of 2013, or the weird Ruin Lust of the same year) has caused some critics to despair, with Waldemar Januszczak sensationally calling for her resignation. The curation here is, sadly, no less complicated and ultimately does Hepworth few favors.

he exhibition’s attack is two-pronged in its aim: to revisit Hepworth’s role in the development of international avant-garde sculpture, and to analyze her works in the wider context of the St. Ives landscape, where she lived in the latter part of her life and to which she owed much inspiration. To start, Hepworth’s small studio carvings place her in a trend amongst sculptors in the 1920s to hand-carve everything — harder stones especially — themselves. Considering we mostly associate Hepworth with large, abstract forms, it is a delight to see smaller scale, representational renderings of animals emerge from natural shapes (works that have mostly traveled from private collections: another plus). Yet her undoubtedly charming, squat toad in green onyx pales next to John Skeaping’s (her first husband) mighty sleeping buffalo in lapis lazuli, or a snake by Henry Moore, both of which are displayed adjacent to Hepworth’s work. Certainly, she can hold her own against her male contemporaries, but she doesn’t rise above or add her own ideas to the group.

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