Critics’ Picks

Barbara Hepworth, Torso I (Ulysses), 1958, bronze, 52 × 33 × 25 in".

Barbara Hepworth, Torso I (Ulysses), 1958, bronze, 52 × 33 × 25 in".


Barbara Hepworth

Musée Rodin
77, rue de Varenne
November 5, 2019–March 22, 2020

Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), Dame of the British Empire, sculptor of Single Form, which sits serenely before the United Nations building in Manhattan, has finally been given a monographic exhibition in France. Despite their grace, her sculptures in stone and dense tropical woods are indeed heavy and not easy to ship, though they have been shown several times at the Musée Rodin, beginning in the late 1950s. When invited to contribute to the second edition of the “Exposition internationale de sculpture contemporain,” in 1961, Hepworth presented Torso I (Ulysses), 1958, which is now back in Paris and on view here. A little over four feet tall, the bronze sculpture suggests a broad-shouldered hero, and the waves and flotsam he may meet at sea. 

Curators Catherine Chevillot and Sara Matson have gathered a wealth of Hepworth’s personal photographs, as well as a selection from her studio library and a collection of letters she exchanged with Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Pablo Picasso. The gender of Hepworth’s correspondents gives pause. Are these documents included in order to assure the audience of her importance? Hepworth’s dark, dense Seated Figure, 1932–33, carved from a Guaiacum trunk, doesn’t need any letters to prove the nobility of its form: a female body knotted around itself and looking out from a solid, smoothed frame. Nearby, brilliant Mediterranean-hued lithographs from Hepworth’s 1954 sojourn in Greece emphasize an attention to color that is clearly evident in her careful selection of wood and stone.

Adjacent is a children’s play area with bright ovoid objects conceived by the organizers. This is the first time this kind of space has been created at the museum. While the ambition to open the gallery to young families is a welcome shift, it is worth asking why this space for children was introduced alongside the work of a mother and not a father. While motherhood does occasionally surface as a theme in Hepworth’s art, it is the landscape outside her Cornwall studio that remained her most consistent muse. The expansiveness of that environment is best evoked in the last room, an open space of white walls illuminated by skylights. Here, the artist’s intuitive forms and finely worked surfaces gather playfully, liberated.