Posted: 25 May 2011 by Sarah Greenberg, RA Magazine Editor
David Chipperfield RA's new Hepworth Wakefield Museum is a triumph. From the outside, the jagged grey granite building perched above the River Calder looks stunning, even if its uncompromising modernity strikes a slightly forbidding note.
Its jagged silhouette seems a nod to Hepworth’s powerful forms, as well as to the surrounding Yorkshire landscape that inspired the Wakefield-born artist in her youth, not to mention Henry Moore whose work is shown in nearby Leeds and at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
The Hepworth Wakefield museum stands almost fortress-like above the river, with a dramatic pedestrian bridge drawing visitors in. As the architect explains when looking at the site, it was designed to have no front and no back, so that it feels a part of the riverside landscape, and is a landmark from every angle:
Inside the Hepworth Wakefield, Chipperfield’s reputation as an architect who loves art is fully justified. He has built the museum ‘from the inside out’. His desire for luminous space with high ceilings to show off the sculpture defined the distinctive shape of the building.
Chipperfield has thought deeply about what it feels like to walk through his space and he has made a museum that gives us views in every direction – both to the dramatic riverscape outside and to the stunning works of art inside, all bathed in natural light.
As we enter the art galleries on the first floor, we look through a series of rooms, arranged loosely in a circle, every one of them designed to have a view into another, so we have the giddy experience of being in two places at once.
I looked from the first Hepworth gallery one way to the exhibition of young Irish sculptor Eva Rothschild, whose uncompromising forms resonate with those of Hepworth.
Click on the image gallery at right to view Eva Rothschild's works while listening to this audio:
When I looked in the other direction, my eyes landed on the early twentieth-century modernism of Hepworth’s youth, with glimpses of the wonderful collection of the Wakefield Art Gallery that is now shown in its glory and includes fascinating works by Spencer Gore RA and Roger Fry, among many others. And as I gazed at a gorgeous early Hepworth head, I looked to the next room to see a Brancusi head that may well have inspired it.
Each gallery is designed to a slightly different size and angle, with floor to ceiling windows letting us gaze at the world beyond as well as illuminating the art. Following a fascinating gallery devoted to Hepworth’s working techniques, the climax is the plaster gallery – the highest and largest in the museum – filled with Hepworth’s original hand-worked casts, all life-size. More than any other gallery, this one allows us to get close to the monumental scale and ambition of the artist and her work. Look hard at the massive plaster of the piece known as the ‘John Lewis’ sculpture – ‘Winged Figure’ – and see if you recognize it. In Oxford Street, the sculpture is passed by thousands and seen by no one. Here at the Hepworth Wakefield, its awe-inspiring power has been restored.