In the mid-1950s, Barbara Hepworth returned to bronze after a break of 30 years. Casting in metal not only meant that several editions of the same work could be made and sold; it was more durable than her carvings, and thus better suited, as she put it, to the “travelling circus” of the contemporary art world. But the change brought with it a shift in style, too: a salty new freedom. The first of these bronzes, Curved Form (Trevalgan) (1956), the idea for which Hepworth conceived while gazing at the Atlantic from a hill between St Ives and Zennor, has a sense of movement her work had hitherto lacked. Its arms, lithe yet muscular, bring to mind the wings of some huge, greenish sea bird. Such a heavy thing – and yet it might take off at any moment.
Curved Form (Trevalgan) makes an appearance relatively late on in Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life, by which time its energy feels very necessary. In the 21st century, exhibitions are often too greedily expansive, the eyes tiring even before the feet. But in the case of this particular show, the biggest survey of the artist’s work in the UK since her death in 1975, there is an additional problem. Hepworth’s sturdy brand of modernism, so smooth and suave and safe, hardly benefits from being displayed en masse. Forced to compete with itself, the work doesn’t rise to the occasion; it grows quiet and inconspicuous.
In the third gallery, a huge room dedicated to the 1930s, I found that a certain numbness had already set in; catching sight of my reflection, I looked glazed rather than galvanised. David Chipperfield’s spaces – the exhibition marks the 10th birthday of the Hepworth Wakefield – are wonderfully light and shrewdly neutral. But fill them with too many peaceable eggs and outsized conkers all at once, and the inevitable result is that the visitor feels as if she has wandered into the lobby of a City bank that has overspent wildly on its art budget.
Save for the first room, dedicated to the forms that had most meaning for Hepworth throughout her life (standing, double and closed), the exhibition is roughly chronological. It’s also – this may be inevitable in a gallery named for the artist – hagiographic: its curator, Eleanor Clayton, is seemingly nervous of raising even the slightest note of criticism (her new biography of Hepworth, though beautiful to look at, is similarly polite, omitting even to tell us that the fire in which the artist died began when she fell asleep while smoking in bed).
It begins with Hepworth’s Yorkshire roots, proceeds through the carving of the 1920s and 1930s, the strung sculptures of the 1940s and 1950s, and reaches its climax with the large-scale commissions; in the Hepworth’s garden, Turning Forms (1950) and Contrapuntal Forms (1950-51), created for the Festival of Britain in 1951, are reunited for the first time in 70 years. At 10ft tall, the latter, carved from Irish blue limestone, was the largest work Hepworth had then ever attempted, and its ambitious scale prefigures what came later, including the whale-like Single Form (1964), which stands outside the UN building in New York.
Hepworth was famously tactile. Even when she wasn’t working, she always had a hand on something: a pebble, a shell. Tools, she insisted, were “precious extensions of one’s sight and touch”. Those sculptures that are carved from exotic hardwoods and polished to a shine – Curved Form (Oracle) (1960) resembles a giant, alien seed pod – cry out to be stroked, and because this is inevitably forbidden, frustration is part of the deal when looking at them (how the fingertips tingle, regretfully). Similarly, the tension involved in a piece like Spring (1966), a hollowed ovoid that’s strung like an instrument, lies not so much in the contrast between curve and line, solidity and space, as in the fact that what should surely hum and vibrate is so determinedly still.
Hepworth worried that if her sculptures grew too big, they would tip from art into mere decoration, all effect and no meaning. But when does her work ever jolt or jar? Its sheer, dogged tastefulness makes it easy to like, but difficult to love.
This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t lovely and unexpected things in this show. You just have to veer off the beaten track. I was taken with The Pond (Two Figures) (c1922), a small, tender sculpture in glazed porcelain, made while Hepworth was still at Wakefield girls’ high school (she was bitten early by the notion of carving, her headteacher having introduced her to Egyptian sculpture in a slide show that “tightened” her nerves with excitement).
A gallery is devoted to the hospital drawings of the late 1940s – she was invited to watch an operation by the surgeon who was treating her daughter, Sarah, who had osteomyelitis (a bone infection) – and they’re as good as ever, their abstract elements (hands, faces) suffusing them with a numinous beauty. It is fascinating, too, to see Hepworth’s experiments in printmaking – an attempt to make money. A bolt of curtain fabric from 1932-3 is fabulous: modishly geometric, highly covetable.
The small and the large, the minor and the major. However wearying at moments, the cumulative effect of Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life is undeniably imposing. In the end, it is the way that this exhibition reveals, at almost every turn, Hepworth’s overriding commitment to her work that I find most inspiriting (though this may be inadvertent: in spite of its subtitle, Clayton has kept biographical details to a minimum).
How much this artist had to cope with. By the time the war broke out, she was the mother of a small boy and triplets. The father of the three babies, Ben Nicholson, was often absent. Yet she kept going, no self-pity. “I’ve slowly discovered how to create for 30 mins, cook for 40 mins, create for another 30 and look after children for 50 and so on through the day,” she wrote in a letter of 1939. “It’s a sort of miracle.” At some point in this vast show, the visitor cannot help but experience, even if only fleetingly, some sense of this miracle. It soars inside you: invigorating, envy-inducing, just a little shaming.
• Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life is at Hepworth Wakefield until 27 February 2022