Henry who?: Barbara Hepworth retrospective ’Sculpture for a Modern World’ opens at Tate Britain

Two black-and-white images. On the left, a giant abstract sculpture. On the right, the female sculptor at work.
Barbara Hepworth's major retrospective at Tate Britain clarifies her standing as both an international master and an essential figure of the modernist project.
(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Barbara Hepworth always suffered from not being Henry Moore. Or, in fact, from not being any old Henry, John or Jacob. Sculpture being a man's business and all. Except, maybe it's not quite that simple. Certainly, Hepworth doesn't have the brand recognition that Moore does. But as a new retrospective at Tate Britain – her first for almost 50 years – makes clear, during the 1950s and 60s Hepworth was an artist of international standing in the way that Moore never really was. In 1950 she flew the flag at the Venice Biennale – and it's a Barbara Hepworth in Manhattan's UN Plaza, not a Henry Moore.

'Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World' is recognition that Hepworth's stock has been rising exponentially in recent years; that her abstracts now resonate more powerfully than Moore's looming figures and that her carvings in African hardwood have aged remarkably well. She certainly gets name-checked more than often than Moore these days, by designers if not artists. Hepworth is a true modernist icon in ways Moore is not.

It seems that Hepworth had planned that all along. One of the more fascinating elements of the show are her photographic collages, which first appeared in The Architectural Review in 1939, placing her works alongside modernist houses by the likes of Neutra. This now feels like a very smart move, positioning her work as part of the broader modernist project (and ensuring that she is now fetishised by the same people who fetishise Case Study Houses and Finn Juhl sofas). Indeed, the exhibition makes clear how much care and attention Hepworth  – the toughest of cookies – paid to show her work was well represented in art magazines and beyond.

Another joy of the show is a room dedicated to the marvelous Gerrit Rietveld Pavilion at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Holland, which has housed a permanent installation of Hepworth's work since 1965. For this exhibition, Tate Britain worked with architect Jamie Fobert and students of the RCA to create a temporary take on the Pavilion, housing six works from the late 1950s and early 60s.

Black-and-white image of large sculpture

The retrospective displays over 100 artworks, including both her most significant sculptures in wood, stone and bronze, and lesser-known works.

(Image credit: The Hepworth Photograph Collection)

Bronze abstract sculpture on display at art exhibition.

With round and sensuous shapes carved directly into heavy materials, Hepworth created a form of raw serenity.

(Image credit: Tate Britain)

A wooden sculpture representing a harp.

Powerfully evocative, Hepworth's sculptures nonetheless remain essential in form. Dove, for instance, adopts the shape of a modernist harp.

(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Two American hardwood sculptures on display in an art exhibition.

'Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World' is recognition that Hepworth's stock has been rising exponentially in recent years; that her abstracts now resonate more powerfully than Moore's looming figures  and that her carvings in African hardwood have aged remarkably well.

(Image credit: Tate Britain)

Hardwood sculpture of infant child.

The show chronologically follows Hepworth's artistic footsteps, starting out with her smaller figurative sculptures from the 1920s and culminating with the larger abstract pieces of the 1950s and 60s.

(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

A small black sculpture of a naked woman's torso and head, displayed in a glass box. A woman is bending down to look more closely at the sculpture.

Hepworth's struggle as a woman to make it in the artistic world is an overarching theme throughout the show. Almost exclusively surrounded by men, Hepworth demonstrated a rigour in her work which seemed to exceed the desire to create and further suggested a motivation to break through. 

(Image credit: Tate Britain)

Large wooden spherical sculpture against a black and white backdropl

The show contains contextual multimedia such as magazines and photographs to complement the artist's work, and demonstrate its critical reception over the years. 

(Image credit: The Hepworth Photograph Collection)

Line-drawing sketch showing design of planned sculpture.

Sketches also surround the material manifestations of her work, so as to demonstrate her creative process.

(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Abstract bronze sculpture.

Oval Form (Trezion) was made in 1961 – 63: the years in which she more consistently created large, abstract sculptures.

(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Large rectangular bronze sculpture with round peepholes for viewing the green landscape behind it.

Hepworth's works were meant to exist outside as environmental installations. 'All my sculpture comes out of landscape,' she wrote in 1943.

(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Sculpture formed of two caramel-coloured irregular 3D shapes. The smaller shape sits on top of the larger one.

Hepworth's retrospective at Tate Britain emphasises the importance and meaningful endurance of her works.

(Image credit: Bowness, Hepworth Estate)


Tate Britain
London, SW1P 4RG