It is by no means a criticism to declare that the eye of this beholder has seldom spotted much in the way of beauty at The Hepworth Wakefield. It has seen impressive, stunning, amusing, thought-provoking, shocking, pointless, intriguing, vibrant, ugly, delicate and (occasionally) dull things – but little that could be described as conventionally beautiful. Perhaps contemporary art doesn't do beauty in any traditional sense.
However, it has also seen Wild Girl, the current Gertrude Hermes retrospective – and the only word to describe many of the pieces on show is just that: beautiful.
The exhibition traces the development of two strands of her work: printmaking and sculpture. The prints start with simple woodcuts through to almost impossibly intricate black-and-white engravings and then moving on to the introduction of colour. The selected
sculptures reveal the contrasting approaches which characterised her three-dimensional works, with detailed figurative busts of family members and friends displayed alongside much simpler abstract pieces, the latter (despite lying at the opposite end of the complexity scale) quite clearly taking their inspiration from some of the woodcuts.
“Gertrude didn't have sharp elbows,” said Jane Hill, author of The Sculpture of Gertrude Hermes, the definitive book on its subject, and co-curator with the Hepworth's Sam Lackey of an exhibition which explicitly aims to refocus attention on an oft-overlooked figure. “She didn't get credit at the time and was only really discovered in the 1990s. Now I hope this exhibition will help people get to know and appreciate this extraordinary artist.”
Although Hermes (1901–1983), the Kent-born daughter of German parents, professed to prefer sculpture to printmaking, it is her woodcuts for which she is best known – or, perhaps, was best known –
through her commissions to illustrate natural history books in the 1930s.
It is these illustrations which prompt the use of the 'b' word as her life-long fascination with nature is articulated in a series of prints which are at one and the same time a faithfully accurate representation of their subject – plants, birds, fruits and fungi – and a joyful celebration of the small-scale wonders of the English countryside. See Violets (1930) or Autumn Fruits (1935): take time to study the sumptuous detail and then contemplate them not just as works of art and expressions of talent, but as labours of love.
Just as demanding of attention as the central elements of many of these prints are the intricate abstract borders Hermes created around them, which can be interpreted as a bridge to a second distinctive body of her woodcut work: fantastical scenes in which the physical and imaginary worlds intertwine, where observation mingles with flights of fancy. Pieces such as Fathomless Sounding (1932) and The Thames near its Source (1933) delight and disturb in equal measure, with the ever-present natural iconography woven into surreal images which summon up half-lost memories of fevered dreams.
The introduction of colour in Hermes' post-war prints heralds a freer, less technical approach to her work. Stonehenge (1959) has much in common with Henry Moore's pen-and-ink sketches, whereas Ring Net Fishers (1955) combines the attention to detail of the earlier woodcuts – note the circling gulls waiting to grab a stray salmon and the distant mysterious pin-pricks of light
– with a flowing treatment which points to another common thread running through her work: a tremendous sense of movement. It is there in the flapping fish, the swirling water and the fishermen hauling the net ashore; and it is equally evident in one of the earliest prints in the exhibition, The Swimmers (1924), where the three eponymous figures cut through the onrushing current.
Arguably, however, Hermes' remarkable ability to instil movement into a static image is most strikingly displayed by the linocut Starlings (1965), where a twisting flock of the birds performs its dusk aerobatics above a silhouetted tree against a grey and yellow colour-wash sky. Look closer, however, and the birds also take the form of leaves, as if blown sky-high by an autumn gale. As with many of her works, things aren't necessarily what they seem at first glance, which makes it all the more compelling a piece of art.
Although she began experimenting with sculpture at much the same time as print-making, it was not until the late 1930s and into the war years that Hermes began to spend more time on three-dimensional work – often working on the kitchen table while the children played around her. It is fitting, then, that the most affecting of her figurative works is Judith and Simon (1936), a delightful bronze of her son and daughter. Meanwhile, Torso (1939) is a more abstract piece which reflects her fascination with the textures and patterns of wood – the nature lover to the fore again – while this aspect of her work reaches its zenith in Heart of the Matter (1966–7), a possibly unfinished 'plank carving' sculpted from a
single piece of wood and which, despite its essential angularity, draws the mind straight back to the whirlpools and vortexes in so many of the woodcut prints.
And regardless of the quality and variety of the sculpture on view here, in the final reckoning it is the prints, in all their technical brilliance and captivating beauty, which define this show. If your view of the Hepworth has been that the kind of work it shows isn't your idea of art, then this exhibition could be – should be – the one to change your mind. Try it and delight in it, for it's surely impossible not to love it.
WfL rating: 4.5/5