What better way to mark The Hepworth Wakefield’s 10th birthday and to re-open its doors post-lockdown than with an exhibition dedicated to its namesake? The gallery opened in 2011 to house Wakefield’s art collection and to create a legacy for Barbara Hepworth – one of the most important artists of the 20th century and a key pioneer of modern sculpture – in the town where she was born.
The most expansive exhibition of her work since her death in 1975, Barbara Hepworth: The Art & Life is a chance to encounter many of the artist’s most famous pieces from across her long career, alongside a number of lesser-known and rarely-seen sculptures, drawings, paintings and fabric designs. It will also present Hepworth’s practice in dialogue with that of other major female artists with whom rich resonances can be found; specifically, through new commissions by Tacita Dean and Veronica Ryan, and Bridget Riley’s paintings from the 1960s.
As the title suggests, The Art & Life will be far more than a collection of Hepworth’s output, however, additionally providing a rich insight into what she was like as a person – deeply spiritual and passionately engaged with many of the leading political, social and technological questions of her day. The chronological display spans her childhood in Yorkshire and earliest adventures in artmaking; through to her time in Paris, where she met Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso and other key members of the European avant-garde, who fired her interests in abstraction; her experiences of motherhood that became so central to her work; the impact of the Second World War, as captured in her ‘Hospital Drawings’; and her later-life experiments with new materials such as lead crystals and aluminum.
The cross-over between Hepworth’s art and her enduring interests in music, dance, theatre, Greek mythology, politics and science will equally be reflected throughout the exhibition, offering a far more detailed and multi-dimensional account of the artist than is often afforded. Despite this rich tapestry of influences, it was her unifying aim to “project into a plastic medium some universal or abstract vision of beauty” (Hepworth) that perhaps sits at the heart of her wide-spread and enduring appeal, however. For many, her work offers a unique sense of balance, peace and truth that speaks entirely for itself. After a tumultuous year and a deluge of online exhibitions, this return to the work of one of the UK’s most loved sculptors feels like a very welcome form of embrace.