Tag Archives: Jacob Epstein

Wandering around Wakefield: The Hepworth Wakefield and the YSP

8 Sep

The train journey from London to Wakefield is surprisingly quick although it’s not particularly exciting.  But I was in good company with my friend from up North who loves trains and is also extremely knowledgeable (damn him) – a particularly useful companion who was able to tell me about everywhere we passed through.  Grantham, for example, is home to the UK’s only living pub sign which consists of a beehive of South African bees.  I was disappointed we didn’t have time to stop for a drink there (but it was only 10am) – maybe next time.

The Beehive.  Image via www.flickr.com/photos/historyanorak

The Hepworth Wakefield is visible from the train but to get its full impact I think you need a sunny day.  The grey industrial concrete matched the sky and I wasn’t feeling that excited.  The architects have called the exterior colour Hepworth Brown and this has caused much debate.  In the light, I think it’s more of a greyish lilac but on Tuesday it looked dreary, until we arrived outside and felt the confidence and power of the building.

The Hepworth Wakefield. Own photograph.

Like Turner Contemporary, it’s designed by David Chipperfield Architects and there are similarities, not least the use of concrete.  The Hepworth is very exposed and isolated; it rises from the River Calder, like an old mill or Venetian palazzo.  There is no proper front or back.  Instead, with water on two of its sides, the building is intended to be seen from all directions.  With this in mind, Chipperfield wanted to produce a three-dimensional site that could be accessed from different levels and sides and so conceived this structure, consisting of ten geometric forms.

The Hepworth Wakefield. Own photograph.

The building itself is intended as a giant sculpture that can be circumnavigated.  Although it’s not meant to re-create a large Hepworth, it does aspire to Hepworth-like qualities.

The galleries are located on the upper floors and are sized according to the scale of the works, with smaller rooms for earlier works and larger ones for the temporary contemporary pieces.  It is rare to find a building designed around the artwork it houses but this is and that makes it very special indeed.  The inside brings the space to life.  None of the rooms is rectangular – the building
tilts and twists and turns in an ambitious way.  The pitched ceilings provide changing atmospheres and light streams in whilst water flows outside.

The Hepworth Wakefield.  Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

You’re either going to love this confident concrete composite or hate it but it’s certainly not shy – it’s very much in your face.  Whereas Turner Contemporary is relatively modest in both scale and design, the Hepworth is intended to stand authoritatively and make a statement.   The building is a serious, enigmatic space that rejects the sterile, white-box gallery space to which we have become accustomed.  It is gorgeous, it’s different and far removed from the dreary building I was anticipating from my initial impression on the train.

The gallery celebrates Barbara Hepworth a native of and aims to put the spotlight on Yorkshire and modern British sculpture.

The first gallery is dedicated to Hepworth’s own sculptures, exploring the quality of her work.  There’s no mucking around here.  The gallery is inspired by Hepworth and they get straight to the point.  Sadly, the sculptures have to be displayed in Perspex cases but they are brilliant nonetheless.

Gallery 3 at The Hepworth Wakefield. Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

Whereas our natural instinct in a room is to turn left, strangely, gallery two is on the right.  After this confusion, you continue into Wakefield’s own art collection – mostly a very eclectic mix of Modern British Art with works by Ben Nicholson, Jacob Epstein, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Patrick Heron and others.  There’s a very unusual Hepworth drawing, Tibia Graft (1949), from when she was invited to observe an operation at the Princess Elizabeth Hospital in Exeter, and a stunning John Piper, Entrance to Fonthill (1940).

The galleries then continue to concentrate on Hepworth considering her in the context of the period, her relationship to European contemporaries and the spirit of artistic exchange, offering an exploration of her studio environment that provides a unique insight into her working methods.  The cabinets in one of the rooms have drawers that, annoyingly, cause an obstruction and knock into your legs; in spite of this they are definitely worth opening.  Gallery five displays the incredible Hepworth Plasters which, to my mind, are cluttered and deserve more space.

Gallery 4 at The Hepworth Wakefield. Image via www.hepworthwakefield.org

I had no idea the collection here was so extensive and, next, there is a focus on Yorkshire art with some wonderful images (including a Turner sketch) of the Chantry Chapel that stands outside the gallery.  A cleverly hidden seat by a large picture window even invites visitors to sketch the Chapel themselves.

Hot Touch, by Eva Rothschild, features 16 new works created especially for The Hepworth combining a wide range of media that includes fabric, leather and wood.  The works often make use of the forms and strategies of modernist art – squares, triangles, holes and repetition alongside a myriad of visual associations and symbols.

Eva Rothschild exhibition. Own photograph.

Rothschild’s new works seek to engage with Hepworth.  Although at first glance they seem to be polar opposites, the shapes used by Rothschild pay homage to many of Hepworth’s works, meditating on material and form.  Making use of the walls and ceilings, you can tell how brilliantly these pieces have been constructed for the space.  Stairways (2011) hangs powerfully from the ceiling with hands for fixtures.  Glimmers of colour contrast Rothschild’s use of black outlines and striking forms, showing off the works to their best advantage.

Eva Rothschild exhibition with Stairways in the back corner.  Image via www.artreview.com

It’s a great exhibition but, unfortunately, the building is still new and, therefore, garnering most of the attention and critical acclaim.  For me, Hot Touch was the icing on the cake, showing off how great this space really is – a calm and contemplative cavern for viewing art.

Back outside, I headed for a closer look at The Chantry Chapel, on the medieval bridge over the Calder.  It is the only survivor of four original chantries in Wakefield and the oldest surviving bridge chapel in England.

The Chantry Chapel.  Own photograph.

Wakefield itself, although a little rough around the edges, and not necessarily somewhere I’d want to explore alone, is a real gem.  My walking tour of Wakefield took in The Grand Clothing Hall (a brilliant building from 1906 in the Italian Renaissance-style), Barclays Bank (not just because I needed more cash but to take a look at the impressive sundials that have made it famous), 57 Westgate with carved heads over its windows and entranceways, Theatre Royal, the Magistrates Court, the Town Hall, the old Court House, the Masonic Hall and so on.  It’s endless and I can’t possibly begin to detail everything.  Wakefield has produced a cute little pamphlet detailing what there is to see with a helpful map but I had the perfect tour guide so, for once, I always found myself in the right place.

Theatre Royal. Own photograph.

It’s important to look up in Wakefield.  At street level, there’s the usual array of take-away restaurants, bars and pubs (admittedly, some very good ones), strip clubs and the like but crane your neck and there’s really some fabulous architecture to be found.  There is also modern sculpture dotted around the city – a wood and metal work by Andy Green representing the modern digital age on the Wakefield Media Centre, Seams by Oliver Barratt taking inspiration from seams of coal refers to Wakefield’s mining history.  So, to anyone who is a bit snooty about heading to Wakefield I say think again.  I missed sampling its nightlife as we had a 9pm train and, although I’m assured I was missing out, I think I was pleased to head back before the town began to party.

Andy Green at the Wakefield Media Centre. Own photograph.

15 minutes by car from the centre of town is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and you can’t do Wakefield without also visiting there.  Spread across 500 acres of eighteenth-century landscapes ground and three indoor galleries, is an array of exhibitions, sculptures and installations.  I hadn’t expected to have time to do this so, while everyone else was sensibly attired in raincoats and wellies**, I was in high heeled boots – the perfect clothing to amble across the Yorkshire moors in the howling wind.  After about ten minutes the rain came pouring down and, sheltering under a tiny umbrella, we realised this wasn’t the day for it.  Sadly, we didn’t even manage to cover a quarter of the park and it’s somewhere I must return to…in walking boots.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Own photograph.

The parts we did get to see were stunning, with sculpture emerging proudly from the rugged landscape, hidden in nooks and crannies and perfectly complementing the undulating grounds.  We made it to two of the indoor exhibitions: Emily Speed’s Makeshift was a bit too basic for my liking, exploring the temporary and the transient by referencing both architecture and body.  The exhibition includes a floating, boat-like structure on which Speed sailed on the lake at the YSP.  Maybe if we’d seen this we’d have felt differently about the exhibition but it didn’t quite grab me in the way the other pieces did.

Emily Speed, Makeshift. Own photograph.

Both indoors and outside, Jaume Plensa’s exhibition, however, is brilliant.  His silent, contemplative sculptures focus on contradictions of the human condition and emotions.  The works are varied – a cut curtain of chiming steel letters fills the main corridor, sculptures that seem lit from within and white alabaster heads that are elongated and almost anamorphic.  A dimly lit room filled with gongs, that reverberate deeply when hit, was mesmerising.

Jaume Plensa. Own photograph.

As we trudged back up the hill longing for a drink and trying to avoid the sheep shit, my companion helpfully, with just a tad of sarcasm, pointed out that I was lucky to be in heels as my shoes had a smaller surface area!

I was home not long after midnight.  Don’t rule Wakefield out – it’s amazing what you can do in a day.

**It’s a good job I check my posts through as my computer had auto-corrected this to say willies!

All of the photos from my day out can be seen at www.facebook.com/chloenelkinconsulting.

Eva Rothschild: Hot Touch is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 9th October 2011, www.hepworthwakefield.orgEmily Speed: Makeshift is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 18th September 2011 and Jaume Plensa is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 22nd January 2012, www.ysp.co.uk.


Top Marks to Tate Britain – The Vorticists

13 Jun

I first came across Vorticism when I was about 12 and our class art project was to produce a portrait of ourselves in the Vorticist style.  I realised at the time that it wasn’t a masterpiece (it’s somewhere in the attic and, even if I found it, I wouldn’t let you see it) and that I hadn’t quite captured the Vorticist aesthetic but then I had no idea how wrong I’d gone.  My own attempt played with the faceted angularity of Vorticism figuration, which originated from Cubism, but I had not grasped the subtle abstractions that develop this movement far beyond the previous Cubist works.  It’s lucky I decided to become an art historian, not an artist.

There is no doubt that I am a fan of this period – indeed of most 20th century British artwork – but that never normally stops me from criticising.  This exhibition, however, is spectacular, bringing together an amazing collection of artists, charting a movement that followed in the wake of Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism.

The Tate Britain exhibition opens with the now-familiar Jacob Epstein sculpture, Rock Drill – a modern phallic power, a machine-like figure, astride a drill, an emblem of industry further representative of his hard phallus.  Although later emasculated in the reduced version, this work expresses the confidence and power of Britain on the brink of war.

Jacob Epstein, Torso in Metal from the ‘Rock Drill’, 1913-16.  Own photograph.

Tate have set the sculpture against a pink wall, evoking the colour of the first issue of Blast in 1914, an announcement of Vorticist ideals as well as a presentation of literary values.  Although this is one of the most iconic pieces in the exhibition, and Epstein was credited by the Vorticists, he never officially joined the group.  Instead, this sculpture shows the importance of machine aesthetics to these artists.

Jacob Epstein, Rock Drill, 1913-15.  Own photograph.

Aiming to place Vorticism in an international context, this exhibition looks at a tiny period of about two to four years, studying the impact of World War I on the Vorticists through close historical analysis.  The specificity of this exhibition looks at Vorticism in its own time, showing how quickly these artists were undermined by the reality and atrocities of war.  Many of the paintings from this time are now lost.  Imagine what may only be out there.  Indeed, the curators optimistically hope that this exhibition, the first of its kind in our internet age, may tempt some hidden gems out of our attics.

The exhibition, which works chronologically, starts with a broad introduction addressing the explosion of the avant garde and, in turn, Vorticism, in London.  Wyndham Lewis when describing the concept to a friend in 1914 said ‘Think of a whirlpool… At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated.  And there, at the point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’  Tate makes this statement clear and thus help to define this isolated movement.

Ezra Pound commissioned his close friend, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, to carve the similarly iconic Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914, which sits proudly in the centre of the second room.  Pound’s only instruction was that the work was to be virile and Gaudier-Brzeska didn’t let him down.  Influenced by the Moai of Easter Island, Pound’s ‘back’ is depicted as a giant phallus.  Known for his direct methods of carving, Gaudier-Brzeska worked directly from the stone, without using models – you can feel his passion and energy as you look at the piece.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, 1914 – rear view.  Own photograph.

There really are too many masterpieces to name – the striking Bomberg paintings in room 2, the Epstein drawings that sit proudly on statement burgundy walls in the third room.  Tate have done this well.  The exhibition seems to get a sense of artists’ individual characters, with rooms focusing on singular figures, such as Epstein, in this dimly lit exploration of a number of his sculptures.

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914.  Own photograph.

The summer of 1915 heralded the first Vorticist exhibition at the Doré Galleries in London where six artists were invited to show alongside seven of the eleven original Vorticists; Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts, Helen Saunders and Edward Wadsworth.  The exhibition was a culmination a series of modern art exhibitions in London and was one of the most pronounced demonstrations of Vorticism.  For me, Gaudier-Brzeska is the star of this section of the exhibition.  His large dynamic works are shown alongside miniscule sculptures next to sensitive studies from his sketchbooks.  The display of one of his sketchbooks is brilliantly done – shown in a cabinet, a (badly lit) screen to the right shows a man flicking through the pages so we can appreciate every sheet rather than experience the usual yearning we are left with when such books are displayed.   I do hope this is something we begin to see more of.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Doorknocker, 1914.  Own photograph.

Gaudier-Brzeska was killed in the trenches aged only 23 and was already dead by the time of this 1915 exhibition, a powerful reminder of the times in which the Vorticists were working.  His death was announced in the second (and last) issue of Blast which also included an article he had written earlier.

The same room also has a work by Wyndham Lewis, the self-proclaimed leader of the movement – The Crowd from 1914-15.  This ingenious abstract composition suggests a modern city.  Individual figures lose their sense of individuality as they too become rigid structures.

Wyndham Lewis, The Crowd, 1914-15.  Own photograph.

The final room, in two sections, brings us to 1917 looking at the Penguin Club exhibition of that year, the last in the Vorticists’ ‘lifetime’, and the ‘vortographs’ of Alvin Langdon Coburn, an innovator and creative photographer.  The strong wall colours split the room with the photographic pieces hung on a powerful blue.  Here, my favourite works have to be the Wadsworth woodcuts – tiny images dealing initially with industrial towns from the North of England where Wadsworth explores and exploits the potential of the texture and contrast of his medium.

Alvin Langdon Coburn works.  Own photograph.

The War was a source of inspiration for many of these artists, most of whom also fought for their country.  The sombre feeling of the exhibition perfectly captures the environment in which they were working.  Big names successfully mix with those who are lesser known, including the female artists Dorothy Shakespear and Helen Saunders whose powerful compositions and use of colour is most striking.

Dorothy Shakespear, Composition in Blue and Black, 1914-15.  Image via www.artmonthly.co.uk

Vorticism has a distinctive look and an inherent aesthetic; the works are abstract expressions of a grey and gloomy time.  They show the subtle traffic of ideas from Europe and the continent through which the Vorticists forged their own distinctive style and ideas – ideas brilliantly explored in the catalogue that traces the movement’s connections with both New York and Europe.  Although, the Vorticists were a resolutely English group, they were influenced by worldwide trends and had a diverse heritage – Epstein was an American Jew, Gaudier-Brzeska originated from France, Lewis was Canadian-born and Ezra Pound, their spokesperson, was American.  A cosmopolitan England – today’s England.

Yes, I had a few of my usual moans – some of the grey paint I disliked so intensely in the Miró show seems to have come out of the cupboard again and some of the labels are peculiarly placed at the back of the sculptures but, overall, Tate haven’t tried to jazz this up – it is a beautifully curated selection of stunning and important art works.  It is clearly and concisely laid out – you can walk around the sculptures, walk through the rooms without obstruction and understand the development of the movement.

The War ended and with it Vorticism – one of its many casualties.  The main problem with Vorticism is that too few people know about this short-lived movement and this exhibition and catalogue should help to change that.  Too few works survive but the energy, talent and sheer vivacity of these artists, despite the horrific times in which they worked, shines through.  It is a brilliant exhibition, bringing these genii to the forefront.  Bravo Tate.

The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World opens tomorrow until 4th September 2011 at Tate Britain, http://www.tate.org.uk.

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