Heide Museum of Modern Art has a reputation for celebrating trailblazers, which makes them the perfect fit to host a survey exhibition of Barbara Hepworth – the first female sculptor to achieve international recognition.
The British artist created striking sculptures in stone, wood, bronze and paintings from the early 1920s until her death in 1975. Her abstract work is renowned across the UK and Europe, but Heide is hopeful Barbara Hepworth: In Equilibrium will finally make her a household name in Australia.
‘Many Australians aren’t aware of her achievements and innovations,’ head curator Kendrah Morgan explains. ‘For example, her “piercing” of the form was an invention often mistakenly attributed to her associate Henry Moore, and it had an enduring impact on the development of new sculptural vocabularies.’
‘With the currency of the ‘Know My Name’ campaign and increased recognition for the contributions of women artists, it seemed timely to bring her work to Australia, as she was an important influence on our own, local developments in sculpture,’ artistic director Lesley Harding adds.
The museum was also drawn to her feminist views, as she was a vocal advocate for women in the arts. ‘Despite having four children, including triplets, she made time for her art practice and believed that family demands should not be a barrier to aspirations and careers for women,’ Lesley reveals.
The landmark exhibition has been four years in the making. In addition to working with Barbara’s granddaughter Sophie Bowness, the curators travelled to the artist’s hometown of St Ives to experience the ‘rugged coastal landscape and the ancient Neolithic sites in West Cornwall’ that were an important source of inspiration in her work.
This connection to the landscape helped inform the exhibition’s look and feel, too. Heide enlisted Melbourne architects Studio Bright for the design, which plays into the colours, textures and themes of the collection, while a projection room playing a ‘surrealist-inflected film from 1953’, literally places the works within the Cornish landscape!
There’s more than 40 works to explore across several rooms that chart Barbara’s career, from her early figurative marble carvings through to large-scale abstract forms ‘grounded in the natural world and human relationships’.
‘They are full of meaning and associations,’ Kendrah says of Barbara’s work. ‘We hope that visitors can identify with the symbolism and the messages contained within her works, and appreciate the full extent of her humanist vision.’