A multicoloured cot blanket; grid paintings that look like weaving; “Infant” (1929), an upright, dark brown wood carving of a sleeping baby, mirror-polished to suggest the glow of newborn skin and a mother’s sense of her son imbued with light: even a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that, simultaneously, such distinctively feminine works would be pivotal pieces in full-scale London museum retrospectives.

This summer, for the first time in its history, Tate devotes a trio of solo exhibitions to female artists: Sonia Delaunay and Agnes Martin at Tate Modern and Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World, launched this week at Tate Britain. Each charts the trajectory of a woman coming of age in the early 20th century on the cultural outskirts — Odessa, Saskatchewan, Wakefield — and forging a career in modernism’s heartlands: Paris, New York, London. Taken together, the shows chronicle a global moment of opportunity, when possibilities of social change met the revolution of modern art.

Each exhibition distils the integrity and ambition of a serious career spanning 50 years. Yet none delivers the visceral thrill or intellectual charge of a great retrospective, because none of these artists really changed how we see or think. Has a woman artist ever done so? The stories here show that female artists tend to assimilate and adapt radicality pioneered by men.

Delaunay channelled into fashion dynamic colour patterns ultimately indebted to cubism. Martin subverted abstract expressionism in quiet, diaphanous lines poised between drawing and painting. Tate’s pairing of Martin with Hepworth is inspired: Hepworth, too, brought a powerful calm to early modernism’s macho abstract gesturing. That, as Tate unravels, is both her strength and her limitation.

An opening juxtaposition of Hepworth’s naturalistic, curvaceous “Doves” (1927) with Jacob Epstein’s block-like, geometric copulating “Doves” (1914–15) makes this instantly clear. Epstein’s “fucking doves”, as Lord Drogheda complained in 1915, are elemental, uncompromising, united in an abstract oval breaking into outrageous figuration only with the male’s swollen phallic neck. Hepworth’s birds, heads curled at rest, are gentle, elegant. Already present, in the way they emerge from their marble base, its rugged surface offsetting the doves’ smooth finish, is the interest in landscape which would hold Hepworth’s abstracting within the English Romantic tradition, as it did Henry Moore’s.

Direct carving — raw, anti-academic and influenced by non-western models — was embraced by Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska before the first world war. Tate demonstrates its impact in the 1920s on Moore and other British sculptors, including Hepworth’s first husband, John Skeaping, as they experimented with animal forms — Hepworth’s translucent green onyx “Toad”, Skeaping’s lapis lazuli “Buffalo” — before progressing to seated figures, hieratic and stately, recalling Egyptian and Mexican models. Highlights are Hepworth’s black polyphant stone “Contemplative Figure” (1928), not seen in public for half a century, and the corsehill stone “Figure of a Woman” (1929–30).

At this stage, little differentiates Hepworth from Moore. That changed when Hepworth took on the mother-and-child motif, prevalent in early 20th-century carving both for content — fertility was Epstein’s and Moore’s obsession — and formally, because it allowed exploration of complex relationships between forms within a single block of stone or wood. In a series of “Mother and Child” pieces in pink ancaster and ironstone, and in the alabaster “Large and Small Form” (1934), Hepworth’s contribution was to deny singularity: she represented the protagonists by two separate pieces of stone, distinguishing the child from the hollow in the belly of the mother in eloquent, undulating abstractions.

Made in the year Hepworth gave birth to triplets, these proclaim woman’s independent identity from motherhood even as they celebrate closeness. At the same time, parallels between the curves of the female body and those of the landscape, especially the hills and dales of Hepworth’s native Yorkshire, are pronounced. “I, the sculptor, am the landscape,” she declared. “I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour.”

Woman and nature, interior and exterior, invisible and visible: Hepworth through the 1930s developed an abstract vocabulary for harmony, unity, equilibrium at human scale. Her vertical wood “Single Form” pieces recall both tree trunks and torsos; in her arrangements, multiple shiny ovoids, spheres and cones are sometimes resting on top of one another (“Two Segments and Sphere”, 1935–36), sometimes pierced (“Pierced Hemisphere 1”, 1937, “Forms in Echelon”, 1938).

“Power is not manpower or physical capacity,” Hepworth wrote in the constructivist manifesto Circle in 1937, “it is an inner force and energy.”

Circle was a collaboration between Hepworth, her second husband, painter Ben Nicholson, and constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo, who in 1936 became their Hampstead neighbour. In 1939 Gabo followed the couple to St Ives, where he decisively influenced Hepworth’s stringed works, beginning in 1943 with “Sculpture and Colour (Oval Form) Pale Blue and Red” and “Sculpture with Colour (Deep Blue and Red)”.

Nicholson’s impact is evident too, in the coloured surfaces of these painted, hollowed-out interiors where the fall of light helps articulate space.

Animated by Hepworth’s response to Cornwall, such enfolding, curving forms express physical and psychological experiences of landscape. The curves and cavities of “Pendour” (1947) represent Pendour Cove on the rocky coast. The iconic, curling “Pelagos” (1946) — “sea” in Greek — mimics the arms of land enclosing St Ives bay; spiral-shaped, the work suggests a shell, wave, rolling hill, its taut strings expressing for Hepworth “the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills”.

Hepworth’s is an autobiographical oeuvre which acquired nevertheless political resonance as abstraction became the aesthetic of freedom; even, in the postwar epoch, of healing. A quartet carved from huge logs of Nigerian guarea, the warm, richly grained wood opened out to create womblike sheltering spaces, is infused with mourning — the works were made in 1954-55 after the death of Hepworth’s eldest child in a plane accident.

Public commissions now poured in — “Single Form” (1961), standing in New York’s United Nations Plaza in memory of Dag Hammarskjöld, former UN secretary-general, also killed in an air crash, is the most significant — as Hepworth became internationally acclaimed. Tate’s final room acknowledges this with a recreation of Gerrit Rietveld’s sculpture pavilion, reconstructed in Otterlo in 1965 and launched with Hepworth’s 1960s bronzes reprising her own modernist abstractions; the pierced forms — “Sphere with Inner Form” (1963), “Squares with Two Circles” (1963) — particularly echo Rietveld’s open concrete-and-glass constructions and flow between art, architecture and nature.

“Never again will I see my work in such perfect and wonderful conditions and surroundings,” Hepworth said. She was right: her later work can be portentous or over-obvious, but here our final view is of lightness, stillness, autonomy — a spare, graceful display which is also the fine swansong of curator Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain’s outgoing director.

‘Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World’, Tate Britain, London, to October 25. tate.org.uk

Slideshow photographs: Morgan-Wells; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections; Tate; The Hepworth Wakefield; Private collection; Ulster Museum; The Pier Arts Centre Collection; Paul Laib, The de Laszlo Collection of Paul Laib Negatives, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. All images copyright Bowness/Hepworth Estate

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