She is widely regarded as one of a handful of female modern masters, along with Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Nevelson. But British sculptor Barbara Hepworth has never received the degree of recognition bestowed upon some of her male contemporaries—most notably Henry Moore.4 In the 1920s, Hepworth and Moore became close friends and had a
profound influence on each other as they developed a style of sculpture synthesizing abstract principles and organic forms. Hepworth went on to create an impressive body of work while raising four children—three of them triplets—and despite enduring financial insecurity for much of her adult life. But she was always eclipsed by Moore, who became a superstar of the international art market. And her reputation has fallen into semi-obscurity since her death 20 years ago at the age of 72. Now, a retrospective of Hepworth’s work, on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until Aug. 7, has brought her into the limelight again. “It’s really exciting to be reviving someone who deserves so much to be revived,” says Alan G. Wilkinson,
important formative influence” on Hepworth, but adds that by the start of the Hampstead years they were working side by side as equals. “They were like Braque and Picasso in the early days of cubism. They were constantly exchanging ideas and influencing each other’s work.” Yet even in this period, the sculptures of Moore and Hepworth remained very different. She was at heart a classicist who strove to create serenely beautiful objects, while he found inspiration in the unsettlingly direct expressiveness of pre-Colombian art. Hepworth’s stone
carving Figure of a Woman (1929-1930), one of the strongest early works in the current retrospective, resembles Moore’s work in its thickset monumentality, but has a repose that sets it apart from the pent-up vitality of his carvings.
Shortly after the birth of their son, Paul, in 1929, Hepworth and Skeaping drifted apart. By the end of 1931 Hepworth was romantically involved with the painter Ben Nicholson, whose subsequent movement towards abstraction ran parallel to her own. They began exhibiting jointly and travelled to France to visit the studios of Picasso and the avant-garde sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp. In 1934, life threw a confounding curve at Hepworth and Nicholson: they
co-curator of the show and an expert on Henry Moore. “So many of these pieces really sing.”
As her friend, the prominent British art critic Sir Herbert Read, once wrote, Hepworth’s aim as an artist was to “infuse the formal perfection of geometry with the vital grace of nature.” The current retrospective, featuring 66 sculptures and 28 drawings from 1927 to 1975, reveals that she often succeeded in inspired and eloquent ways. The AGO, which has a Hepworth collection second in size only to that of London’s Tate Gallery, is the third and final venue for the show. It has already been on view at the Tate Gallery Liver-
along with the AGO—and at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn.
Some of the works have been showcased in Canada before—but in a remarkably different social climate. The extent to which attitudes have changed towards women artists can be gauged by the catalogue of an exhibition of British art that travelled to Canada in 1956. Written by Read, an ardent supporter, it illustrates the double standard of the time. Of Hepworth, he wrote, “She has remained a completely human person, not sacrificing either her social or her domestic instinct, her feminine graces or sympathies, to some hard notion of a career.”
In fact, Hepworth knew from an early age that she would make a career of sculpting. In her 1970 book Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, the artist noted that all her early memories were of “forms and shapes and textures.” Born in 1903, she grew up in rugged, hilly Yorkshire, where her father, Herbert Hepworth, was an engineer. At the age of 17, she began studies at the Leeds School of Art. There, she met the 22-year-old Moore, and within a year they were friends and classmates at the Royal College of Art in London. Hepworth and another student, the sculptor John Skeaping, were married in 1925. By the end of the decade, Moore, Hepworth and Skeaping were neighbors and close associates in the London district of Hampstead.
Curator Wilkinson describes Moore as “undoubtedly the most
were living in a basement flat and had about $100 in the bank when they became the parents of triplets. It was then, Hepworth recalled, that she “knew fear for the first time.”
Actually, she seems to have taken this radical alteration of circumstances in stride. “A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate),” she wrote in her autobiography. “One is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.”
For several years, Hepworth had been edging away from the depiction of recognizably human forms in her work, but immediately after the birth of the triplets she made her first completely abstract sculptures. “The work was more formal and all traces of naturalism had disappeared,” she wrote, “and for some years I was absorbed in the relationships in space, in size and texture and weight, as well as in the tensions between the forms.” By this time, her art and Moore’s were no longer evolving in tandem, and their styles continued to diverge. Typical of her work in the mid-1930s is Three Forms (1935), a marble sculpture of two nearly oval forms and a sphere. Wilkinson and others have suggested that its forms may symbolize the children the artist had recently given birth to: two girls and a boy.
Fearing for the safety of their children when war loomed in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson, who had married the previous year, left London and moved to the rocky coast of Cornwall. By 1943, she was producing wooden sculptures with taut strings through their hollows that are among the most indelibly beautiful works of her career. Their power derives from Hepworth’s ability to translate the essence of the Cornish coast into abstract forms. The outstanding example in the current retrospective is Pelagos (1946), a rounded, wave-like sweep with a painted, pale blue interior. “The color in the concavities plunged me into the depth of water, caves, or shadows deeper than the carved concavities themselves,” she later wrote. “The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills.”
For Hepworth, the postwar years were a time of flux. She and Nicholson divorced in 1951. And after decades of earning critical recognition, but living in relative poverty, she began to acquire lucrative public commissions and celebrity status. But Moore, who outlived her by 11 years—he died in 1986—still overshadowed her and would
do so for the remainder of her days.
Penelope Curtis, curator of sculpture at the Henry Moore Centre in Leeds, notes in the show’s catalogue that cultural officials choose Moore to represent Britain at the 1948 Venice Biennale. When the next of these inter-
nationally important exhibitions took place in 1950, Hepworth was Britain’s representative. His work was an immense success; hers was not. (She complained that the British officials, instead of selecting a lively cross-section of her sculptures, chose pieces that made her body of work seem “damned ladylike.”) After the 1950 Biennale, wrote Curtis, Hepworth would “always now be seen as the pupil of Moore.”
In the 1950s, as she began to be awarded public commissions, Hepworth started to work with metals. Durable bronze is suitable for outdoor sites, and she was eager to work on a monumental scale. Most of her best-known works, including the towering Single Form (1963), a pierced, shield-like mass that stands guard on the United Nations plaza in New York City, are made of bronze.
Whether they are metal, wood or marble, most of the pieces in the current retrospective that date from the last 15 years of her life are less striking—less alive, somehow—than her sculptures from the 1930s through the 1950s. Although smaller in scale, these earlier works better reflect her true stature as an artist—one who could look her male contemporaries squarely in the eye.
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