Wakefield is the location for this exhibition, the largest retrospective of Hepworth’s work since her untimely death in 1975. It seems months since I went to this exhibition with my ardent technophile brother, who by his own admission, finds culture presented like this quite difficult. This was probably not a good introduction to the newcomer to the artworld, simply because of the huge amount of objects and information to take in on one visit.
Barbara Hepworth was of course a giant of the twentieth century, both as an artist and a woman. Her body of work includes carved stone sculpture, brass and bronze casts together with a small group of exquisite paintings. A significant gift to Wakefield as a legacy were the remaining plasters and other sculpture works for the new gallery.
The exhibition is set out over all ten rooms of the gallery. The first is a supreme collection of her best known works and to see all these pieces together gives the viewer a wonderful overview. Thereafter the exhibition is set out chronologically from her early achievements at Wakefield Girls School through the various stages to her time in St Ives. I immersed my self in the early works which I found so illuminating. There are watercolours of her native Yorkshire and an early sculpture, entitled The Pond (Two Figures), all from her teenage years.
The next phases show how the network of artists in the interwar years in Britain and Europe influenced her works. This is the period of Henry Moore, John Skeaping, Naum Gabo, Jean Arp, Brancusi and Ben Nicholson. It is the time of Rome, Hampstead and then the exodus to Cornwall. During this period stone was the her prevalent material. It was also the time when she discovered the hole in sculpture, in abstract term to see within and without the whole, and the use of strings, to compliment nature and rhythm.
After this the exhibition becomes difficult as there is just so much to take in. Rachel Cooke, in the Guardian, observes that “In the 21st century, exhibitions are often too greedily expansive, the eyes tiring even before the feet.” Having visited the Hepworth before several times I found myself glossing over the plasters and the cast bronzes, which is a shame as there is some very fine abstract sculpture in this collection, the bulk of which forms the foundation for the Wakefield’s collection.
The exhibition closes with some contemporary ideas and comparisons and includes a fascinating juxtaposition with Hepworths tactile abstract sculpture and Bridget Riley’s Echo from 1962 with its geometric emphasise. There is a video with Hepworth’s recorded voice as her greatest work, Single Form is unveiled at the United Nations Plaza in New York in 1964. Hepworth was a friend of the United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld, who admired and collected her work.
What I did enjoy immensely was the new garden at the gallery. After wading through ten rooms of sculptures and information overload to spend a few minutes in the peace and tranquility of this garden, was very welcome. I am, of course, a great enthusiast for Barbara Hepworth and the Wakefield Gallery as this blog will testify and this exhibition, curated by Eleanor Clayton, is a must for anyone to understand the artist and enjoy her great body of work. But be warned – you will need both physical and mental stamina.
Back to my brother though – he has now surprised me by admiring our great medieval cathedrals!
Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life is at The Hepworth Wakefield until February 27th 2020. Enjoy.