This June, Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World – the first major retrospective of the work of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, as well as her never-before-seen photographs, will open at the Tate Britain.
The set of photographs reveal the importance of photography to Hepworth, and how she used it to shape public opinion of her work. As Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s granddaughter and co-curator of the Tate show explains: “Hepworth had a life-long appreciation of the importance of photography in the recording and reception of her work.”
The Hungarian Constructivist artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is thought to have taught Hepworth how to use her first camera – a Zeiss Ikon in 1933. The two became friends when Moholy-Nagy moved to London to escape Nazism, and his modernist ideas influenced her greatly.
It was after a meeting with the artist on his first trip to London that Hepworth produced her first Self-Photogram (1932 – 33), two self-portraits depicting her fuzzy profile surrounded by a halo of hair.
A photogram is an image made by placing objects directly onto photosensitive paper and exposing them to light. The translucency of the object affects the darkness of the impression. The angular lines of the self-portraits are echoed in some of Hepworth’s later sculptures: “They relate especially closely to Nicholson’s painted, drawn and incised profiles of Hepworth in his work from this period, such as linocut Profile 1933,” writes Bowness, “as well as referring to her own sculptures with incised profiles.”
Hepworth was acutely aware of the importance of photography as a means of representing her sculptures to the public. In 1939 she used photographs of three of her sculptures – Forms in Echelon, Helicoids in Sphere, and Two Forms (1938) – to produce a series of photomontages, transporting her sculptures into architectural and natural settings.
Each sculpture is shown from a series of different angles in different contexts, and in a number of different scales. The resulting photographs were published in Architectural Review, which described them as “an attempt to relate some specimens of sculpture to a background which in scale and atmosphere might produce mutually helpful associations.” By portraying the works in multiple ways, Hepworth illustrates her understanding of photography’s power of representation.
Another aspect of Hepworth’s experimentation with photography is an aim to capture movement and three-dimensionality within a two-dimensional image. This is illustrated in her Double Exposure of Two Forms (1937) – a photograph of her Two Forms (1937) sculpture, showing two curved, soft, triangular shapes attached to a base – perhaps representing a mother and child.
As Inga Furness, co-curator of the exhibition explains in an accompanying essay: “The double exposure allows the image to convey two different view-points simultaneously, a Cubist device foregrounding the three-dimensional aspect of the work depicted.”
It wasn’t until 1934 that Hepworth truly started to experiment with and enjoy photography, a love affair that lasted until 1944. Included in the exhibition, and made during that period, are a series of personal photo albums of Hepworth with her husband Ben Nicholson documenting their relationship. Taken in their studio and home, the neatly organised pictures illustrate a blurring of the boundary between life and art.
That’s what’s so captivating about Hepworth – her passion and love for life is evidenced in all she did.
Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World is at the Tate Britain from June 24 – October 25 2015.