Magazine article The Spectator

Heavenly Hands

Magazine article The Spectator

Heavenly Hands

Article excerpt

The Hepworth has been garnering plaudits right and left as a new museum to be welcomed to the fold, and my first visit to this monolithic structure with its feet in Wakefield's River Calder exceeded all expectations. Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, the ten linked blocks that make up this new suite of galleries are spacious and light-filled with excellent views out to the river and town.

Restaurant, education centre and offices are on the ground floor, and upstairs the art comes into its own.

At the top of the stairs is a room of six classic sculptures by Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), whose name the museum has taken since this significant figure of British Modernism was born in Wakefield. The six starring works include a couple of beautiful early figurative carvings ('Kneeling Figure', 1932, and 'Mother and Child', 1934), when Hepworth seems very close to Henry Moore in form and ambition, before she moved away into a more rigorous abstraction of resonating clarity (see 'Two Forms with White [Greek]', from 1963).

The subsequent galleries set Hepworth within the context of Modern British art, mixing sculptures and paintings to very good effect. There are many excellent things on display here, some from Wakefield's permanent collection, others borrowed from the Arts Council, Tate or such distinguished private collections as that formed by the retired Leeds doctor Jeffrey Sherwin. Among the especially memorable are Robert Adam's superb wood sculpture 'Apocalyptic Figure' (1951) and Prunella Clough's 'Paper Mill, Men and Paper Bales' (1950). Outside, the frothing torrent of the Calder laps the walls.

Inside, Gallery 4 is devoted to Hepworth at work, with a display of films, models, tools and workbench. Gallery 5 contains an amazing collection of Hepworth plasters, given to the museum by the artist's family. This room alone is worth the trip, with its vast aluminium 'Winged Figure' at one end and aluminium 'Construction (Crucifixion)' punctuating the dramatic groupings of spectacular plaster forms.

But the real reason for my visit was to see the exhibition of Hepworth's Hospital drawings (until 3 February 2013). To get to this one passes through a gallery of St Ives art, including fine things by Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron and John Wells, and then enters a different atmosphere altogether.

The Hospital 'drawings' are hybrid works, made with washes of oil colour on a pseudogesso ground of roughly applied Ripolin paint, into which Hepworth has incised pencil marks. The resulting drawings of surgeons in the operating theatre are haunting: notice the way Hepworth focuses on eyes and hands in the figure groups which look remarkably like angels from Byzantine mosaics or Renaissance frescoes. Hepworth emphasises the creativity and skill of the surgeon rather than the suffering of the patient, and there is a hieratic quality to these scenes. She spoke of 'the rare beauty of co-ordinated and harmonious unrehearsed movement which takes place . . . in the operating theatre'.

This is the first time so many of the Hospital drawings have been exhibited together, and they make a powerful, if not exactly joyful, impact. The exhibition is curated by Nathaniel Hepburn, director of Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood, Kent, to which the show will tour (14 June to 24 August 2013), after a pit stop at Pallant House in Chichester (16 February to 7 June). Hepburn also curated the Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood show at Norwich reviewed last week, and to have two such excellent exhibitions running concurrently, with well-written accompanying catalogues, is impressive indeed. …

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