There’s a sculpture in The Hepworth Wakefield so moving, so tender, that I can’t get it out of my mind. It depicts a mother and child, separate yet together, still yet full of life. There’s a sense of comfort about the piece, an enveloping protectiveness that makes you yearn to jump into the scene to share in its warmth.
The emblem of the mother and child ran throughout Barbara Hepworth’s work and it’s no surprise to learn that she was pregnant when she created this seminal work hewn out of pink ancaster stone in 1934. A mother-of-four, three of whom were triplets, Hepworth conveyed the idea of motherhood in sculpture in ways few artists have managed before or since. And I’m saying this as someone who, by and large, would rather spend an afternoon in a room of Pre-Raphaelites than rubbing shoulders with a contemporary collection.
But that’s the joy of The Hepworth. A £35 million, 5,000 sq metre building at the heart of Wakefield’s regeneration, it manages to thrill even the most sceptical of visitors. It is the UK’s largest purpose-built gallery since The Hayward was constructed in London in 1968 and showcases the Wakefield Permanent Art Collection. As well as Hepworth and Castleford-born Henry Moore, there are key works by other leading British artists including Hepworth’s second husband Ben Nicholson, Jacob Epstein, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. The displays are enhanced by loans from the collections of the Tate, the British Council and others. The Wakefield collection alone consists of more than 5,000 works.
The award-winning building is in a rather incongruous setting. Opposite one of the largest contemporary art spaces outside London is a Howdens Joinery and the busy main road runs alongside the grey, imposing structure. It’s a far cry from the original Wakefield Art Gallery, a considerably smaller space which opened in 1934 with a remit to ‘keep in touch with modern art in its relation to modern life’. Hepworth herself was born in 1903 and she and Henry Moore have continued to be the poster boy and girl for the area.
But it’s only when you get inside the David Chipperfield-designed gallery that the genius of the building reveals itself. It is formed from a conglomeration of ten individually-sized trapezoidal blocks. In other words, the ceilings slope. This means that, unlike so many other art galleries, you never feel enclosed within a white box. Floor-to-ceiling windows and ceiling slots flood the rooms with light so that, even on a dull day, the Hepworth feels bright and airy. It also has the added benefit that artists working within the space feel that they have to respond to the architecture.
Gemma Yates is curator at The Hepworth. She says: “One of the amazing things about this gallery is that it was specifically designed to show these sculptures. And [the space] changes throughout the day, the moods change as the sun moves around and you get different weather. There are no right angles in the galleries. You’re not walking through square after square.
“The building forms part of the flood defences [it sits on the River Calder], it’s built into the River. It reflects the industrial heritage of the site. The energy from the river is used to heat and cool all the gallery spaces.”
As I wander around The Hepworth with the curator, she points out how the gift gallery was designed specifically to house Barbara Hepworth’s plasters (the Hepworth Family Gift consists of 44 full size working models – a series of surviving prototypes in plaster and aluminium made in preparation for the works in bronze Hepworth executed from the mid-1950s to the end of her career).
Yates says: “This is what makes us unique. The core of our exhibition project is about making, not about the finished object. It’s about the artist and her studios. It’s the universal appeal of the idea of making something. Plaster is a democratic material. There’s a sense of her scraping her fingers through it.”
Although Barbara Hepworth died nearly 40 years ago, her legacy is enduring and remarkable. Over 50 years, from 1925 to her death in 1975, she made more than 600 works of sculpture. The strength of her ambition is staggering, not to mention her commitment to her understanding that ‘the dictates of work are as compelling for a woman as for a man’. One of her most famous pieces adorns the front of John Lewis in London’s Oxford Street (see Winged Figure photo to the left). I don’t know how many times I walked past it little realising its significance. A prototype – itself on a grand scale – dominates one of the Hepworth galleries.
“It’s the notion of the body and the landscape,” explains Yates. “It’s anthropomorphism, everything you relate back to yourself, the body, to an animal. Hepworth had her very own type of abstraction, thinking about mystical places in the landscape. Look at the engineering [behind it]. Her dad was an engineer. They are like wings, there’s a sense of enclosure, of hugging. It’s majestic. She’s describing form with string, with colour.”
Equally impressive are the Henry Moore sculptures; there’s even one you can touch (albeit wearing gloves). Just as the curves of the Hepworth pieces mirror the curves of the building, so do Moore’s works. “For both Hepworth and Moore, there’s a notion of a truth to the materials,” says Yates. “Often the material influenced the carving. They’re not trying to force into being something that isn’t. That’s where the notion of abstraction comes from.”
She adds: “[Barbara Hepworth] is never really about pure abstraction, everything comes back to the body. And she cited Yorkshire as an inspiration.”
Like any modern gallery, what’s on show is just a fraction of what’s stored behind the scenes, not least a wealth of correspondence between Hepworth and Moore. The gallery hopes that its archive will become a research destination. Meanwhile, adjacent to The Hepworth’s ultra-modern silhouette is a newer venture – The Calder.
A disused 18th century textile mill, The Calder has been re-invented as a new art space which, from the outside, could not be more different to The Hepworth. It opened last August with a remit to present a rolling programme of world-renowned contemporary artists, projects and performance as well as continuing the centre’s learning activities. A recent inhabitant of the ground floor of Caddies Wainwright Mill was Erika Vogt who staged her first UK solo show there.
Andrew Bonacina is chief curator at The Hepworth. “The Calder is a place where we can stretch our wings a bit and show things that are more experimental as well as showing younger artists and challenging our visitors within the space. It enables artists to be more experimental. It’s a rough and ready space. The upper floors are for residency programmes, studios and other creative enterprises.
“The Calder is a counterpoint to the Chipperfield building, we have more freedom here. We are talking to Northern Ballet and Opera North about commissioning work for this space. We are starting to develop long term relationships with other organisations across the region.”
The Hepworth celebrates its third birthday in May. Its success is testament to the vision of the local council, the Arts Council and other vital funding organisations. According to recent figures, The Hepworth has acted as a catalyst for tourism and attracted in excess of £350 million inward investment into the historically important Waterfront area of the city.
Simon Wallis, director of The Hepworth Wakefield, says: “The Hepworth is one of the best designed galleries anywhere. There’s something special about seeing sculptures here. You do get a fantastic insight into Barbara Hepworth’s work. It’s fascinating to see both Barbara’s and Henry Moore’s work in that Yorkshire context. Alongside that have a regularly changing diet of international contemporary art. It’s a unique proposition.
“World class art shouldn’t only be seen in London. It’s terrific what we’ve got West Yorkshire. It does sometime seem that we [the North] are playing second fiddle to London, it’s not just a classic cliché of a Northern shoulder chip. The idiosyncrasy of the UK’s regional strengths need to be celebrated and promoted more than it has been…One of the UK’s biggest problems is being too London-centric. It’s counter-productive for the country moving forward. We have very many wonderfully vibrant cities up here.”
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Photographs is on until June 1, 2014: www.hepworthwakefield.org/whatson/dicorcia/