Barbara Hepworth – review

The Hepworth Wakefield

So who invented the hole? It's tempting to think that Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, born within five years and five miles of one another, were subconsciously conditioned by the porous landscape of the Calder valley. We'll probably never know, as the first British sculpture generally acknowledged to have a hole through it, Hepworth's Pierced Form of 1931, was destroyed during the war. But the new gallery bearing her name shows her running neck-and-neck with her local rival to become the most significant British sculptor of the last century.

Neither Moore nor Hepworth remained in the area very long; and it would be false to suggest that Wakefield, rather than Hampstead or St Ives, became the cradle of the British avant garde. Yet Moore maintained that he experienced the Yorkshire landscape much as neolithic man saw it; while Hepworth was even more specific: "All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures, the roads defined the form."

There's nothing parochial about the new gallery which makes an impressive show of placing Hepworth in her European context. Her characteristically smooth, lozenge-like creations, that seem to have been sucked as much as sculpted, are interspersed with works by modernist innovators such as Brancusi, Gaudier-Brzeska and Naum Gabo, whom she regarded as an intellectual soulmate, and whose Construction: Stone With a Collar looks like a mouse chasing its tail.

Yet the main purpose of David Chipperfield's eccentric cluster of trapezoidal boxes is to show off a bequest of working models, tools and bronze-age bric-a-brac from the Hepworth estate that gives unprecedented insight into the artist's working methods. At the grandest end of the scale is a soaring, six-metre-high model of the Winged Figure commissioned for the exterior of John Lewis in Oxford Street; at the most intimate, a cast of Hepworth's left hand, which she called "my thinking hand, my listening hand, that transmits thoughts through the fingers into the stone".

Central to the collection is a small piece made in 1934 entitled Mother and Child in which Hepworth, for the first time, created an object based on two separate forms that draws as much attention to the air within the sculpture as the space around it. Comfortingly embraced within a curve of the Calder, the new Hepworth provides a striking example of a womb with a view.


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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