One of the first times I saw my mother cry was standing in front of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. It was in the artist’s former studio in St Ives and the work in question was “Infant” (1929). This sculpture of Hepworth’s first-born child, Paul, captures a formal tension between the rigidity of the baby’s body, upright and immobilized in Burmese wood, and the supple fragility of living flesh suggested by the figure’s curves. It also synthesizes the individual experience of a young mother honoring her newborn son with, as the work’s impersonal title might suggest, a universal, almost totemic expression of new life.
As a bemused 8-year-old, these admittedly weren’t my first thoughts. But Hepworth’s capacity to transcend time and place in works that distill from life its most fundamental forms has brought her many admirers. The British artist is a household name in the UK, and her work is celebrated in public collections across the world. Oddly, however, she has been largely overlooked in France. A new exhibition, on show at the Musée Rodin through March 22, marks her first retrospective in Paris, and only her second on French soil. Curated by Catherine Chevillot, director of the Musée Rodin, and Sara Matson, curator at the Tate St Ives, the show presents a generous selection of sculptures from across the artist’s career, including iconic works such as “Pelagos” (1946) and “Three Forms” (1935), alongside tools from her studio, correspondence, photographs, and videos of the artist talking about her practice.
Hepworth’s lack of recognition in France is all the stranger given her many trips across the Channel and her subsequent links to artists such as Brancusi, Picasso, Braque and Arp that the exhibition documents. Speaking to Artinfo in Paris, Hepworth’s granddaughter, the art historian Sophie Bowness, pointed out this is part of a broader phenomenon: “British art in the 20th century in general has been really misrepresented in French collections, with a very selective representation. There are exhibitions about Hockney, Bacon and Freud, but there are whole swathes of British art that are not known among the general museum- and gallery- visiting French public.”
The show’s curator Sara Matson agreed with Bowness, adding that, by contrast, Henry Moore is represented and understood in France. Indeed, a major retrospective of Moore’s work was held at the Musée Rodin back in 2010, and his name crops up in the marketing materials for the current exhibition as if to accentuate Hepworth’s prominence by association, or at the very least, to introduce her work via an artist better known to the French public. While this raises the obvious point about women artists being overlooked in favour of their male contemporaries, Matson reminds us that Hepworth’s case was more nuanced: “Hepworth did – for want of a better expression – ‘run with the big boys’ at the time and managed to break through in a way that few women artists did. That was sheer determination, strategic placement of her work, and complete dedication and belief in her work. That also comes from a deep belief in social purpose, and a commitment to the environment and human causes that she really believed in. This wasn’t an affectation; it was her life and work.”
Hepworth’s social engagement, and her focus on our relationship with the environment in particular, may well find new relevance for a contemporary audience. As Matson says, “when you look at Hepworth’s writing, she talks about fear of extinction. Of course, this was in the context of the impending threat of Fascism, and then the Cold War. She had strong social commitments; she was very much part of the peace campaign, the Labour party, and obviously knew Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary general, and was concerned for world peace. But her perspective comes from trying to understand our place in the world and realizing the dissonance between the natural world and humanity that had developed through a period of industrialisation and modernisation. I think there is something about her connection to universal forces and her understanding of our place in the world through the figure and the landscape, through her social concern, that is equally as resonant today.”
Hepworth spoke frequently about the relationships between figure and landscape, between the human and natural world – relationships that are then mirrored in the interaction between viewer and artwork. As the curator Catherine Chevillot puts it,“sculpture for Hepworth is a sort of tool for the public to learn about relationships. […] She was convinced that in doing those sculptures she could change the world and change the mind of the viewer.” While this belief in the triumphant power of art anchors Hepworth in an ideology that, for some, fell out of fashion or became untenable after the atrocities of World War II, Hepworth maintained a lifelong optimism about what sculpture could do.
Beyond Hepworth’s ideological positions, the Musée Rodin’s exhibition demonstrates the sheer skill of an artist whose craftsmanship alone ensures the lasting appeal of her work. “Her ability with material is enduringly compelling for any artist or viewer,” Matson comments.“And that’s what I think she was trying to do; she was trying to make work that had a universal meaning, that had qualities that would appeal across the generations and have meaning, as she said herself, 20,000 years ago as much as 20,000 years ahead.” A solo exhibition of Hepworth’s work will open at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne next year, exploring her influence on Australian artists. Closer to home, Matson notes that for British artists Hepworth is as important today as ever: “I’ve had numerous requests to see her studios from people like Jonathan Baldock, Jessica Warboys, the painter Claire Woods… This ongoing exploration of her work and her significance from a multitude of perspectives shows that her consistency and vision throughout her sculptural practice, her understanding and skill in terms of articulation of materials, but also her solid conceptual development throughout her career, is – excuse the pun – a touchstone for artists exploring an art world in which anything is possible now.”
“Barbara Hepworth” runs at the Musée Rodin in Paris from November 5 through March 22.
Article published on Blouin Artinfo.