Wild Girl: The Artistic Rebellion of Gertrude Hermes

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Gertrude Hermes Carving Diver, 1937, at St Peter's Square© Leeds Museum and Galleries

The feminist sculptor is finally being honoured with an inspired exhibition at The Hepworth Wakefield

The Hepworth Wakefield champions West Yorkshire as the birthplace of two of Britain’s best artists: Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Yet a third name should exist between the two: Gertrude Hermes (1901 – 1983) or Gerty to her friends, who slowly faded into obscurity thanks to the fickle nature of the art world and a non-existent desire for fame. Hermes was a close companion of Moore and Hepworth, even spending her honeymoon in a tent at the end of Moore’s garden. While her work is equally as stunning as the others, it opposes their monumentality, instead being naïve and intimate. Her rejection of the traditional business model and artistic practices of her contemporaries was a bold, almost punk statement for the times.

Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes, Sculptures and Prints came about after the curator spotted a gold knocker in the shape of a frog on the front door of a house in the countryside. Intrigued by its beautiful modelling and strong Navaho totem influence, she knew this wasn’t any ordinary knocker, and was set on the trail of rediscovering the artist and bringing her out of obscurity.

The exhibition is the artist’s first retrospective in 30 years and contains 120 works, uniting her two-dimensional works with sculptures to establish an interesting dialogue, despite the fact she didn’t exhibit the two together. Heartfelt curation weaves throughout the show – school girl notebook drawings of horses echo her sketches of the animals in London Zoo where she taught drawing classes later in her life, and her woodcut prints focus on subjects such as growth, creation, and her central theme of nature.

Hermes was an understated rebel – she never wanted to be commercial or sell works for large amounts of money – in fact, many of her pieces were simply given as gifts to friends and family. Yet, her most empowering act was a critical turning point in both art and equality, was when she demanded that the Royal Academy, of which she was a member, to allow women to attend the dinner after the Annual General Meeting of Academicians. The following year, Hermes and Barbara Hepworth both sat pride of place.

Hermes exhibited her works in Paris and Venice before fleeing the Second World War to Canada. Upon her return to London she lived a humble life, teaching woodblock printing and animal engraving at Camberwell Art School then Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, before retiring in to obscurity.

Wild Girl tells the intriguing story of this feminist artist who never did things by the book, through collaging her works with the Hepworth’s signature care and personal touch – everything exudes the joy apparent that Hermes found in making her work, and that joy is infectious.

Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes, Sculpture & Prints is at The Hepworth Wakefield from November 13, 2015 until January 28, 2016.