Barbara Hepworth is now acknowledged as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, but for large parts of her career she was called "cool and restrained", her passions that fed her art overlooked and judged more as a woman than an artist in unforgiving decades.
"Barbara Hepworth, Art & Life" exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield (Hepworth was born in Wakefield in 1903) is a vast new exhibition that charts the life, work and passions of the artist and one I found very moving and the most utterly inspiring of my recent Artist Dates.
The Hepworth has, like other art galleries, only just been able to reopen and it has launched itself with a big juicy bang of an exhibition! There are normally two rooms of permanent exhibition dedicated to it's inspiration, but this new exhibition uses the entire 8 or so vast rooms of this much loved gallery. It charts her life from birth, school, early paintings and drawing (her life drawings are solidly sculptural in style), her fabric designs and much rarely seen work from private collections and other national collections. From her career launch in the 1920's and 30's with carvings focusing on the human form, abstracted to single and double forms, some with hidden forms inside, portraying motherhood.
Through the 40's and 50's came her pierced, strung and metal sculptures. The 1960s, her most prolific years, where she produced as much public and private abstract sculptures in one decade as she had in the previous 3 decades together, saw her large scale bronzes and carved sculptures.
Hepworth continually returned to three important sculptural forms throughout her career. The Standing Form, the Two Forms and the Closed Form, all referring back to the human form. the human form, my own obsession, is initially made abstract, then it gently re-emerges. Barbara worked through a variety of materials, different stones, woods and bronze. She was fascinated with colour (as comes out in her sketches for new sculptures) and in surface texture. The three forms she returned to time and time again were associated with her own personal physical and emotional experiences, such as standing alone on the top of a hill.
Through the war years Barbara moved out of London to Cornwall, where her days were filled with double-cropping a tiny garden for food and trying to fe and protect her children, only able to draw and make a few plaster maquettes at night.
In 1947 Hepworth was invited to watch an operation in a hospital....she was mesmerised by the beauty of purpose and the co-ordination of all the people in the room to the saving of a life. Secondly, to the grace, movement and gesture involved. Her drawings and painting of this series are fascinating by the detail focused on the hands and faces, the rest is blurred, showing the attention, focus and skill of the doctors...with just one female doctor in the group, standing apart.
My personal favourites were the curved forms of the late 1950's period, where i can see the shape of dances moving through the space. Barbara loved to dance and knowing this, I can see and feel it in her work much more clearly than before. This is the joy of an exhibition like this...the insights and understanding connecting you more closely to the work.
For all she went through in her private life, her art remained her constant dedication. She always, always came back t the human form and to her passions of music, dance and poetry.
She was quoted as saying "I detest a day of no work, no music, no poetry...It's all brewing in my mind, all I want is time" "I have never never never felt bored with my work or in working. In fact I such such an intense and sensuous pleasure out of it that it is almost a Yorkshire sin!"
Ahh...a woman after my own heart!
The exhibition, marking 10 years of the gallery, is the largest exhibition of Hepworth's work since her death in 1975 and is on until 22nd February 2022 and is supported by an in depth book. Do go and experience it for yourself. The gardens also feature her sculptures, there is a good gift shop and cafe, plus I can highly recommend the peanut brownie from the little cafe in the gardens!