International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives, 1915-1965, Tate St Ives

Fiona Hackney considers the small colony of artists whose influence was felt far beyond their Cornish base

May 22, 2014

International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives, 1915-1965
Tate St Ives
Until 28 September 2014

A startling black bronze, organic slab, the work of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, is the first thing to confront viewers on entering the new International Exchanges exhibition, and the last thing they see as they leave. Titled Single Form and commissioned by the United Nations in 1961 – the final scaled-up version stands outside the UN building in New York – the monumental sculpture serves as a metaphor for, and material embodiment of, post-war ideals of unification, when communities worked together for progress and peace.

Hepworth, her international reputation secure, was at the height of her powers, yet she chose to live and work in the small harbour town of St Ives in Cornwall. The commission progressed through correspondence and international collaboration, a prime example of the myriad exchanges, networks of events and encounters connecting arts practices in St Ives to other regions, nations and continents that underpin this exhibition, and which it sets out to investigate.

International Exchanges is driven by a desire to reconnect these actions and alignments in order to understand better how St Ives artists “negotiated a much broader terrain”, as co-curator Rachel Smith explains in her excellent essay in the accompanying book. Her doctoral research informs the exhibition, contributing to its fresh perspectives and nuanced argument. A response to the Tate Gallery’s seminal 1985 survey, St Ives 1939-64: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture, and Pottery, the current show views St Ives through a different, and wider, lens; one that approaches the local through the international. As such, it challenges the myths that surround the art of St Ives, notably a largely uncontextualised focus on individual creative practice, place, light and landscape. The aim instead, as Tate curator Chris Stephens points out, is to consider the art “not in relation to where it was made but in relation to what was made, how it was made, and its position in the wider artistic discourse”.

A significant part of this project’s originality is that it shifts concern away from place to consider space, and from one place to multiple spaces (and their related places); the spaces of production in which art was made, allegiances forged, concerns discussed and critically interrogated. Shared themes emerge. A preoccupation with the authenticity of rural crafts, a return to figuration across post-war Europe and America, and the experiential aspects of landscape (nature as force, for instance) are all issues that organise the exhibition’s structure and display.

Exhibitions, arts criticism, publications and magazines were central nodes in these complex networks, connecting and also directing events and activities, and cases displaying key items are present in each gallery: the material artefacts of exchange. Part of this exhibition’s originality, moreover, is the way in which it quietly disrupts the myth of male mastery that too often shapes the story of modern art in St Ives and indeed the story of modern art more generally. Female artists were phenomenally active; Margaret Mellis, Winifred Nicholson, who visited rather than lived in St Ives, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and others worked alongside the first and second generation of male artists. Many were well connected in artistic circles and made important contributions that are often overlooked, such as Winifred Nicholson’s friendship with the Dutch constructivist Piet Mondrian, which was instrumental in forging links between St Ives artists and European modernists.

The impending war in Europe prompted Ben Nicholson, Hepworth and the Russian constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo to leave London and relocate to St Ives in 1939, and International Exchanges begins with the utopian constructivist art of the 1930s made in opposition to fascism. Works by Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy and the peripatetic Dutch painter Theo van Doesburg, among others, locate those practising in St Ives within an evolving language of abstraction. The British work is small scale but ambitious. The label next to a jewel-like drawing by Hepworth records her fuming over the demands of looking after triplets when all she wanted was to “carve, carve, carve”. The delicate, translucent colours of an early Mellis collage, which Gabo admired and kept in his studio, and the intense hues of Winifred Nicholson’s painting Moonlight and Lamplight (1937) – its shapes and colours refer to Kandinsky’s colour theory – sing out, an emotional response to what many regarded as the strictures of constructivist doctrine.

A concern with the domestic continues in the next section, “The Handmade”, which shows sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brâncuși and others alongside ceramics by Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and the art potter William Staite Murray. Interposed with still lives by Georges Braque, Ben Nicholson and Juan Gris, the display sets up a dialogue between art and craft that was missing from the 1985 St Ives exhibition. Leach and Hamada established their St Ives pottery in 1920 and their fusion of form and image, and attention to truth to materials, was highly influential. A rarely seen painted box and vase by the “naive” painter Alfred Wallis, which drew on the vernacular traditions of a fishing community, locate him in a context other than the often repeated, and somewhat patronising, story of his “discovery” by Ben Nicholson.

The central gallery, with its dramatic views over Porthmeor beach, is given over to work made from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, when artists struggled to find an appropriate language of expression after the trauma of war. It was also a time when the growth of travel and communications encouraged a diverse and internationally connected art community. Paris was an important centre. Large Tragic Head (1942), a bronze by Jean Fautrier, with half the face summarily slashed off, is a stark reminder of the horrors of German occupation. An intensely coloured abstract by Serge Poliakoff, a Russian émigré, and a densely textured impasto by the French Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle, both residents in Paris, signal the influence of Kandinsky and French Tachisme. A stunning abstract by the Italian Alberto Burri, meanwhile, ominously contrasts the rough textures of sacking with a flat plane of red acrylic; trained as a doctor, Burri was part of the relief effort in post-war Europe.

The personal connections, critical writing and vivid abstractions of Patrick Heron form a central thread that runs through the final galleries. Large-scale works by Mark Tobey, Bryan Wynter, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Victor Pasmore, among others, synthesise optical processes and external sources. Wynter’s Atavistic Group (1959), with its complex matrix of overlapping brushstrokes, seems to “write nature”, while Hepworth’s imposing sculptures, Curved Form (Delphi) (1955) and Pierced Form (Epidauros) (1960), represent the experience of being in the landscape. Peter Lanyon, working in Cornwall, and the American Sam Francis both produced paintings based on flight. Lanyon’s Thermal (1960), a gestural piece full of wind and air, sits across the gallery from a Francis canvas, dappled and stained to evoke the intensity and evanescence of light.

The final gallery, “Into the 1960s”, is the weakest and, despite assured constructions assembled from found materials by Lanyon and Niki de Saint Phalle, the curators struggle to convince. Pop did happen in rural Cornwall, but we need to look beyond art to graphics, design, fashion and music.

The project of finding “common ground” was symptomatic of the decades covered by International Exchanges. Smith, in her essay accompanying the exhibition, cites the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who in 1945, with the Holocaust still in mind, argued for the constitution of “a common ground” where “perspectives merge into each other, and we co-exist through a common world”. Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN secretary general whose death Hepworth’s Single Form memorialised, described his organisation’s work as “an organic process through which the diversity of peoples and their governments are struggling to find common ground upon which we can live together”. Hammarskjöld was a great admirer of Hepworth’s work and the UN was one among many organisations, institutions and individuals that found the new art an appropriate means of expressing and communicating such concerns.

Many artists came and went from the small coastal town of St Ives, but Hepworth remained, making work as part of an international community of artists until her death in 1975 in a fire at her studio. Perhaps more than any other artist in this show, Hepworth’s art embodies the period’s ideals and its belief in our potential to find better ways of living together – a salient message to take away with us as we leave this exhibition.

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