Sometimes the legacy of an artist dissipates over time, only to be rediscovered at a later date. Born in Kent in 1901, Gertrude Hermes is such an artist. Despite fading into obscurity following her death, Hermes was one of the most celebrated printmakers of her generation. A wood engraver, sculptor and designer craftsperson, her artistic career was prolific and varied, yet unlike well recognised contemporaries such as Henry Moore and Barbra Hepworth, hers is a relatively unfamiliar name.
Wild Girl was a retrospective of Hermes’s work, filling three rooms of the Hepworth with sculpture, print, notebooks and field sketches, showing Hermes’s growth as an artist from childhood through to her prime. Hermes was an artist moved by nature and delighted by the esoteric narratives of ancient mythology. There is something enchanting about her work; her prints appear as channelled visions and her sculptures have a shamanistic quality to them, made stronger by her choice of natural materials such as wood and stone.
Mythology, nature, metamorphosis and the creation of life are common themes in Hermes’ work. She was an artist inspired by a wide variety of indigenous and historical cultures and in much of her work the viewer is invited to reconnect with societies that have embraced nature. It is not surprising that as a student Hermes made regular visits to the British Museum. The influence of these foreign artefacts on her work is clear; looking at her prints one can identify the influence of African tribal masks in the ephemeral quality of her motifs, which suggest the half glimpsed visions induced by trance rituals. Her black and white prints move sinuously, revealing images within images, and beings enveloped inside womb like structures, revealing her admiration for creation and motherhood. The fluidity of her lines are captivating; her images of the kind that one can get lost in, presenting something new on each encounter.
Hermes’ wood engravings have a more immediate appeal, while her sculptures can take longer to appreciate. Caught somewhere between figuration and fantasy, her sculptures lack the charm and bold impact of her prints. However, seen together her sculpture and print works have a clear dialogue; there is a totemic quality to her sculptures that is echoed in the otherworldly subject matter of her prints. Seeing the two mediums displayed side-by-side demonstrates the importance of line to both mediums.
Much of Hermes’ work seems deeply personal, and it is possible that she did not intend the viewer to fully understand the meaning of her art. It is as if she wanted to recreate the mystery she felt when in the presence of tribal masks and other historic artefacts. I think the ambiguity of her work is quite deliberate, encouraging the viewer to make their own interpretations. While parts of her work remain hidden, other parts clearly suggest the power of nature and the spiritual realm, alluding to philosophies of animism. In her prints there is no clear divide between human and animal; both are treated with the same measure of admiration and distortion. Ultimately, I feel the real meaning behind Hermes’ work is one of unity: we are all – whether human, animal or mineral – part of the same world, united by its natural cycles and movements.
Wild Girl showcased work from across Hermes’ diverse oeuvre, charting her personal journey as an artist. Her wide circle of friends and acquaintances, that included Henry Moore, only adds to the sense that Hermes was a talented and versatile artist who deserves recognition. The Hepworth exhibition did an excellent job of showcasing her neglected but no less significant contribution.
Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes was at the Hepworth from 13 November 2015 to 24 January 2016.
Image: Installation view, photo by the author.