Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life
The Hepworth Wakefield, until 27 February 2022
I expected to enjoy a visit to the Wakefield to see their Barbara Hepworth exhibition – a peaceful train journey through a misty autumn landscape, followed by an abundance of her signature pierced and stringed forms.
But I got so much more. I don’t know why I continue to be surprised at the rich hinterland of most artists. Here it was again: the exquisite draughtsmanship of her early drawings, which earned her a scholarship to study at Leeds School of Art aged 17, followed by a county scholarship for the Royal College of Art, where she opted to study sculpture. A sequence of early sculptures shows a clear progression towards abstraction.
There were of course plenty of ‘trademark’ Hepworths, such as Bronze with Strings, illustrated here, and the looping, curving metal forms evoking the waves round her Cornwall home. Sculptures formed of single, double or triple elements stand for figures in landscapes or distil the connectedness of motherhood. Placed centrally in the galleries, they allow you to view them from all angles, and up close or from a distance, just as Hepworth would have wished.
Despite the range of her work and the wonderfully explanatory films of her techniques, the partial re-creation of her workshop, the astounding display of the tools she used, the examples of different stages of the casting process, mysteries remain (as they should). Some are trivial and technical, such as where are the knots on her small stringed sculptures? But also, how could someone with such small hands (a plaster cast she made of her left hand is on display) wield the strength to subdue hard wood and marble to find the forms she perceived inside them?
The hospital drawings she made during a period of observing surgeons at work were for me the revelation of the exhibition. In contrast to the bulk and solidity of her sculptures, here are delicate works in chalk, ink and pen. The flatness of the drawings, the intensity of the gaze of the masked surgeons, and their focused serenity give them the appearance almost of medieval saints.
The exhibition contains both maquettes and full-size preparatory models of some of Hepworth’s most famous public commissions, including Winged Figure, which can be seen on the John Lewis building in Oxford Street. Beautiful though it is, its elevation above street level obscures its real scale as it must be at least four times the height of Hepworth herself.
Finally, I must acknowledge there is no getting away from the issue of motherhood, though fatherhood may not have been an issue in a review of a male artist. Hepworth already had a five-year old son when she gave birth to triplets in 1934. Though she wrote of the sheer volume of domestic work entailed in running the house and children (coping with little money and wartime privations meant she had to ’double crop’ the garden on top of everything else) and of her longing for more time to draw and paint, she loved the richness of family life, and her mother-and-child sculptures, however stylised and abstract, capture the tenderness of that relationship.
Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life is a wonderful opportunity to see so much of her work under one roof, and to trace the development of a colossus of twentieth-century art.