The stone-cold truth: Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore are not in the premier league

Leave St Ives’ star sculptor, and her Yorkshire counterpart Henry Moore, as the provincial powerhouses they are. To pretend they had international influence is just petty nationalism

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth died in harness, killed in a fire at her St Ives studio in 1975, when she was 72.

Today, the studio is a shrine to this dedicated artist, and you can see the last pieces of stone she was still working on when she died. Hepworth had real belief in craft. She was hands-on, right up to the end.

So why does her last decade appear to be neglected by the big Hepworth exhibition coming to Tate Britain this year? It culminates with her retrospective at the Kroller-Müller Museum in 1965, a moment when, according to Tate Britain’s forward publicity, her work was “a prominent part of the international art scene”.

Curved Form (Delphi), 1955, by Barbara Hepworth
Curved Form (Delphi), 1955, by Barbara Hepworth. Photograph: Barbara Hepworth Estate/PA

If this show neglects Hepworth’s last years, it is surely because it wants to free her from any provincial status as an idiosyncratic British artist who chose to live far from urban modernity in seawashed St Ives. It wants to proclaim her as a major international modernist who was at the cutting edge of the art movements of her time.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World is co-curated by Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain. Curtis has a thing for modernist British sculpture of the early- and mid-20th century. Before getting the Tate job, she worked for years at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. The first big show under her directorship of Tate Britain was a Moore retrospective, and Moore gets more prominence than Francis Bacon in her rehang of the permanent collection. She also curated the Royal Academy exhibition Modern British Sculpture in 2011.

Curtis has led the way and lent institutional power to celebrating Moore, and now Hepworth, as great international modern artists, but she is scarcely alone in this enthusiasm. The great and the good were outraged when Tower Hamlets voted to sell a public sculpture by Moore. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, with its Moores and Hepworths dotting the landscape, has become one of Britain’s most respected art collections. The Hepworth in Wakefield is another homage.

Henry Moore at work in 1953
Henry Moore at work in 1953. Photograph: Chris Ware/Getty Images

Yet Moore and Hepworth really are idiosyncratic British artists of mostly local interest, and the campaign to turn them into art gods tells a big lie about their true place in 20th-century art. Hepworth is hard to hate (her cavernous sculpted lyres sing like the sea), but easy to get bored by. She and Moore quaintly and cosily soften the discoveries of modern art – in her case abstraction, in his case surrealism – by merging them with a deeply British romanticism.

But to claim they are among the really great modern artists is daft. Picasso dwarfs his imitator Moore. But it’s not just Picasso who makes these modernist Brits look minor. In Hepworth’s case the most significant comparisons are with the truly great abstract artists: you cannot seriously set her works alongside those of Brancusi, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothko or Richard Serra. She is not in the same class.

All these liberal, well-meaning establishment fans of Hepworth and Moore are doubtless as repelled as anyone by the ugly, nationalist politics of Ukip. Yet in a leftish, Hepworthy way it is the purest petty nationalism to hyperbolically pump up the reputations of second-rate British artists. Modern art’s true home was never St Ives, or Yorkshire. Pretending that it was is complacent, insular and either intellectually dishonest or genuinely stupid.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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