The artist and sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, was born in 1903 in Wakefield. Her modernistic art took her through Europe, and her final years were spent in St. Ives from the outset of the second world war. She always felt close to her Yorkshire roots, which influenced her work from an early age, so it is fitting that a large exhibition of her life’s output should be based in Wakefield.
Barbara’s early artistic development was nurtured by her school and she won scholarships to Leeds School of Art, followed by the Royal College of Art in London. Her early sculptures were directly carved into wood and stone, developing a modern abstract interpretation of human forms and their relationships to each other and the environment. Later she added holes to her forms, giving them an extra dimension. She travelled to Italy, learning to work with marble and on to Paris, visiting Avant-Garde artists like Picasso. As the war approached, she developed bolder geometric forms and stringed plaster carvings, reflecting the tension of the times. Post-war, now in St. Ives, she started bronze castings and larger metal installations. Her love of music and dance gave us paintings and forms full of intrinsic movement. Experiments with spacial objects came from space exploration, her talent was endless. I hadn’t realised that she died in a fire at her St. Ives studio, May 1975.
The Hepworth Wakefield gallery opened in 2011 to house the city’s art, championing contemporary artists and providing a legacy for Barbara Hepworth. The original art gallery from 1934 had supported her early in her career.
David Chipperfield Architects design used the waterfront setting and industrial heritage of the site. The skylights and floor to ceiling windows introduce daylight into the gallery and give visitors views of the River Calder. The blocky concrete façades echo many of Barbara’s sculptures. Interestingly, the gallery sources the majority of its heating and cooling from the river’s flow.
We drove over the M62 in dire conditions, thankfully as we parked up, in the gallery’s car park, the rain and sleet stopped. A bridge leads across the River Calder, as far as here navigable as the Hebble Canal. The river was in full flow over the weir and the stark gallery seemed to be floating on the water. The e-ticket on my mobile worked, much to my surprise, and we were in. First stop the café where we enjoyed excellent coffee, much appreciated after the stressful driving.
There were 10 large high rooms set out on a clockwise circuit showing her works in roughly chronological order. As mentioned above, the lighting was superb and the tantalising different views of the surroundings gave brief interludes from the art within. Throughout, the signage was more than adequate and the interpretation panels highly informative, from which I gleaned most of my information above. Interspersed between the sculptures were many of her paintings from different eras. One fascinating gallery was set out to explain her techniques and featured many of her ‘tools’. My only regret was that touching was not allowed, presumably as a Covid precaution? Sculptures are meant to be touched.
A grand tour of her life, ideals and art. The exhibition closes on 27th February, as I said, “catch it while you can”.
The pictures below were taken on my phone and give an idea of the depth of her work.
I wasn’t that impressed with the gardens or their installations. Maybe just that time of year.