Material worlds: ‘Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life’ at the Hepworth, Wakefield

As you can see from the first image below, this marvellous exhibition is about to close at the Hepworth. However, it rapidly gains new life as a touring show: first to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 9 April to 22 October 2022, then to Tate St Ives from 26 November 2022 to 1 May 2023.

I’ve no doubt there’s a special relationship in play between Hepworth’s work and the gallery that bears her name. With that in mind, I thought it was definitely worth giving you an idea of the show’s contents and approach in this first venue – while wholeheartedly recommending you try to catch it elsewhere on its travels. (So, compared to my usual posts, this is weighted far more towards visual than verbal!)

Hepworth’s early drawing skills are well represented…

… and in some of these works, nascent signs of the later ‘hospital drawings’ are already apparent.

One of the most important of that series is present – ‘The Hands’ – drawing out the artist’s focus and point of affinity with the surgeons: their precision and dexterity). The interpretation also points out Hepworth’s identification with the theatre sister, on the left: both the medical and art worlds of the time felt emphatically ‘male’.

The hang overall is brilliant on context – it’s rare to come across a piece without a similar study or reference work nearby.

My constant impression throughout was how ‘interactive’ – in the old sense – the exhibition is. You feel involved. The abstract, yet vaguely ‘being-like’ pieces universally reflect the humans wandering through the rooms. The exhibition is so well suited to its surroundings that one ends up ‘viewing’ the gallery as well as the work: the entry points for the light; its relationship to its surroundings; its broader structure.

Equally, Hepworth’s work commands you to ‘interact’ with it. I was not the only one wanting to capture close-up details or unnatural angles of the sculptures with my camera, to get a better look and longer-lasting appreciation later on. The welcoming, cradle-like shapes – the gaps, holes and concave surfaces, invite you towards the pieces’ interiors: the movement is two-way.


(All photos by AA.)

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