Preview: Gertrude Hermes and Enrico David

A British wood engraver rooted in nature and a fantastical Italian sculptor are the subjects of two exhibitions in Wakefield. Steve Lee finds their common ground

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Since opening in 2011 the Hepworth Wakefield has put the compact Yorkshire city firmly on the arts map. Providing the largest purpose built exhibition space outside London, the imposing angular building has played host to numerous temporary shows alongside a well-chosen permanent collection. And now the gallery’s reputation is about to be enhanced by the simultaneous opening of two exhibitions.

To many the name Gertrude Hermes may be unknown yet she’s one of the most important female British artists of the 20th century. Hermes passed away in 1983 but her work remains as beautiful and inspiring as ever, featuring prints, sculpture and architectural aspects alongside pieces as unusual as car bonnet-mounted mascots and pub signs.

“The work we’re showing is a real mixture,” explains curator Sam Lackey, “Starting with the old sketchbooks she did as a schoolgirl, with her drawings of flowers and seeds, it goes on through her sculptures, wood engravings and also includes things like these amazing doorknockers in the shape of birds and frogs. She was apparently so generous and warm, and you can really see that in her work.”

The exhibition’s title, Wild Girl, comes from a description of the artist offered by her close friend, the Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison. Lackey explains that moniker owes more to Hermes’s subject matter than a particularly tempestuous personal life. “She kept coming back to looking at nature, again and again, this recurring theme, and we really wanted to make her love of the natural world the focus of this exhibition. There is figurative work too, which often relates to mythology or folklore. But much of it, especially something like her wood engraving series Two People, More People, One Person, you can’t help concluding it’s somehow autobiographical.”

Opening on the same day is the first UK exhibition in eight years from Italian-born artist Enrico David, primarily featuring new sculptural work but also painting and sketches. Although visually Hermes and David have little in common, their shared love for switching between mediums and a passion for repeatedly revisiting a theme provide obvious connections.

“Almost all my work is trying to describe some sort of physical presence, or resisting being there or reluctantly being there or being somewhere with little satisfaction,” David explains from his London studio. “I’m interested in the body as a subject, its physical components and possibilities and different manifestations.”

His work, both sculptural and two dimensional, is striking. With distorted, often wildly, human forms and a hint of the surreal it’s almost possible to lose sight of the fact that the figure is central to his art. “On a primary level, and a lot of my work is done on instinct, it’s accurate to say that the universality of the body is what appeals,” he claims.

And as fantastical and other worldly as it is, the viewer is still left pondering whether there’s a hint of autobiography present in his work too. “There is no referencing as such, there is no modelling, just a sense of using my memory database as an artistic playground,” David admits, before adding with a laugh, “or maybe as an artistic battlefield.”

Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes, Sculpture and Prints and Enrico David are at the Hepworth Wakefield, on 13 Nov-24 Jan 2016

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