Perfect setting for some serious abstraction

“I should like to have an exhibition in Wakefield,” wrote Dame Barbara Hepworth in 1943. “I think I’m less known in Wakefield than anywhere.”

The sculptor was born, bred and educated in the Yorkshire town and while the dramatic landscapes and gritty spirit of England’s industrial north are clearly hewn into her work, she is still more strongly associated with the south – in particular St Ives in Cornwall, where she lived and worked from 1939 to her death in 1975, and where most of her work still resides.

Yorkshire has for some years been an impressive showcase for British sculpture, but it isn’t until now, with this weekend’s opening of the Hepworth Wakefield that the region has been able to celebrate fully its links with this important 20th-century sculptor. The gallery has been designed principally to house The Hepworth Gift, a collection of the artist’s prototype models donated by her estate.

Hepworth famously didn’t agree to a commission unless she felt she had a direct response to the project. Her two biggest commissions – “Winged Figure”, made for the John Lewis department store in London’s Oxford Street in 1961-62, and “Single Form”, her 1964 sculpture for the plaza of the United Nations headquarters in New York, which brought her international acclaim – were for institutions she approved of both morally and aesthetically.

Sir David Chipperfield’s building would surely have appealed to her sensibilities. From a distance, its cast concrete facade is pristine and rectilinear, but up close, its painted surface echoes the plaster prototypes inside.

An invitingly open layout encourages the visitor to wander through the gallery’s 10 rooms – six dedicated to Hepworth and her contemporaries and four to a playful temporary display of new work by Irish sculptor Eva Rothschild. An introductory display gives us a taster of some of Hepworth’s concerns, particularly her modernist insistence on “truth to materials”, the idea that form emerges as much from the material as from the sculptor’s will, and her use of the “pierced form”, which encouraged contemplation both of the sculpture’s inner soul and its relationship to its surroundings.

“Spring” (1966), one of her most characteristic bronzes, spherical, hollowed out, with a criss-cross of strings providing tension to its interior, stands next to the window. The view through its cat’s cradle mesh frames a group of barges on the River Calder on one side and a group of Hepworths on the other. This concern with the internal and the external is essentially a serious one – and that in turn is one of the reasons Hepworth is held up by younger artists today. “There is no irony in her work,” the gallery’s director Simon Wallis comments. “Young contemporary artists find that sincere intent refreshing.”

A display of cosy examples of British post-impressionism – Spencer Gore, Harold Gilman, Roger Fry – makes it easy to see why Hepworth headed to the continent in search of a more rigorous aesthetic. In the next room, her work is liberated in the company of those sublime purists, Mondrian and Brancusi. Here we see how, in the 1930s, Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson, along with their British contemporaries, were encouraged by the European modernists to cast off the last restraints of figuration in favour of a more formalised abstraction. There is a notable dialogue between the works in this room: John Piper’s “Forms on a White Ground” (1935) employs the dynamic primary palette of Mondrian’s “Composition C with Red, Yellow and Blue” (1935); Paul Nash’s “Kinetic Feature” (1931) borrows from the spiral forms in Hepworth’s “Pierced Hemisphere” (1937); and Hepworth’s pure white “Two Forms” speaks to Nicholson’s “White Relief”.

One of her most extraordinary works, “Pelagos” (1946), the star of a room dedicated to summarising Hepworth’s connection with the St Ives School, demonstrates her fascination with the Cornish sea. Its sensual spherical form, dark on the outside with a pale duck-egg blue interior, is energised by a tight row of strings. It is a wave that is always on the point of breaking.

As billed, the Hepworth Gift is the gallery’s real treat: a rare chance to get close to the artist’s hand and to see her working processes. Unlike Henry Moore, who made small maquettes to be scaled up, Hepworth insisted on making her prototypes the exact size of the finished bronze. These plaster models, presided over by the dynamic aluminium prototype for John Lewis’s “Winged Figure”, have been cleverly clustered together, like a group of misshapen figures in a barren landscape. This is fitting, as Hepworth was fascinated by the relationship of figure to landscape. “I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour,” she wrote.

These works, typically vertical, often painted in browns and greens, their surfaces bevelled by Hepworth’s own chisel, speak of the rocky terrain and standing stones of the Cornish and Yorkshire landscapes. This link with an ancient island culture is emphasised by a display of objects – small groups of pebbles, fossils, a neolithic axe-head – that Hepworth kept around to inspire her.

It is this tension between the ancient and modern that makes Hepworth’s work seem both edgy and timeless today. On one hand, her sculptures belong out on the moors, being chafed and corroded by the elements; on the other, they would cut a dash in any Silicon Valley foyer.

Gallery opens tomorrow

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