A Cornish Village's Role In 20th-Century Art

St. Ives's history makes it a fitting site for a new branch of the Tate Gallery

ST. IVES could hardly be called the center of the universe. Yet a kind of greatness (as well as an increasing number of tourists) has descended, over the last half century, on this remote Cornish fishing village at the toe of England's southwest foot. To a substantial clutch of modern artists, more than a few with international reputations, St. Ives has been the center of the art universe.

Patrick Heron, painter (and journalist) is certainly such a one. He is a great advocate of the virtues of this artists colony. He has even gone so far as to claim that "some of the greatest Abstract Art of the 20th century has had its birthplace in St. Ives" - an extraordinary contention that by no means everyone in the art world would concede.

Persisting arguments for and against the importance of St. Ives have now been revived with the opening of an impressive new museum devoted to the 20th-century art produced here. Mr. Heron has contributed a large colorful stained-glass window. Several of his paintings are also on show.

But some critics find St. Ives and its brand of modernism a provincial embarrassment.

Heron's belief that even the American Abstract Expressionists owed a debt to certain St. Ives artists flies in the face of the usual story of 20th-century art - even though several St. Ives painters were exhibited in the 1950s in New York, and examples of their work were seen in the United States before they were shown in London.

One British newspaper critic recently not only dismissed Heron himself as little more than an admirer of Matisse, but he also wrote off a respected St. Ives artist, John Wells, as "mediocre." As for Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor who, with painter Ben Nicholson (they were married), is generally characterized as a leading star in the St. Ives firmament, her reputation has taken something of a beating lately. She is criticized both for her allegedly ruthless ambition at the expense of some other artists an d, more damagingly, for the variable and often rather weak-kneed quality of her sculpture.

This unfortunate criticism was prompted by the opening of Tate Gallery St. Ives. The museum is no mere local tribute to St. Ives art and artists, though it was initiated locally. The intriguing modern building, on the site of a defunct gasworks overlooking the Atlantic, is an outpost of Britain's national museum of modern art, the Tate Gallery in London.

The Tate has a policy of displaying its collection - much of which at any given time is in storage - in distant outposts. There is a Tate branch in Liverpool. And now the new Tate St. Ives is to be administered by the museum and filled with works from its collections. The art shown is to be changed at least annually. This, then, is a museum without a permanent collection, though it is clearly there to exhibit the work of St. Ives artists plus work related to it.

The architects of the white-walled museum are Eldred Evans and David Shalev. They were faced with a difficult site, perched on top of a sheer cliff facing the bay. But they have admirably arrived at a modern - but not offensively modernist - building of four floors that is an interplay of curves and steps, hollows and solids. It is not monolithic - having, like the close-knit streets and houses of the town itself, a great many ins and outs, ups and downs.

Although it is obviously larger than any building near it, and the back gardens of the closest neighbors are disturbingly exposed to the gaze of anyone visiting the rooftop restaurant or terrace, the design must be praised for combining respect for its setting with a legitimate desire to be noticed.

While the galleries, varying in shape, encourage attention to the art rather than the architecture, two curved galleries, one brilliantly displaying pottery, the other sculpture and large paintings, place visitors in a dilemma: Should they gaze over the white surfing beach to the ocean and sky, the rocks and grassy "island" promontory, or should they study the paintings by Heron or Peter Lanyon and the sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Denis Mitchell they have really come to see?

The architects would probably reply, "Both at once." In their words, they "intended art, building, town and nature to form part of one experience." In this way, visitors are made to ask, what precisely have these artists gotten out of St. Ives?

The ocean and the Cornish landscape unarguably instills the work of some of the artists with historical and even geological meaning. St. Ives artists are prone, in their attempts to explain what drew them here, to mystical paragraphs of praise about the unique quality of the light. It is typical island light - in an area virtually embraced by restless sparkling ocean. But light is not always the principal concern of St. Ives artists, whatever they say.

The potential of abstraction to contain and express a kind of primeval aspiration of the spirit - and clearly this can take various forms - seems to come closer to the St. Ives feeling.

Oddly enough, the single moment on my visit when I made unmistakable connection between the art inside and the view outside the museum was when I looked through the high restaurant window over the slated rooftops of the higgledy-piggledy town below. I saw how descriptive Ben Nicholson was in his drawings and etchings of St. Ives, with their incisively linear jigsaws of edges and planes: Nicholson's version of Cubism.

Nicholson may have earned his high international reputation for abstract reliefs, but he persistently drew - and drew inspiration from - whatever surroundings he chose to live in.

St. Ives certainly figures large in Nicholson's career, from 1939 until the '50s. He was certainly one reason other artists - including Naum Gabo, probably the most significant international figure to live here for a number of years - were attracted to the Cornish town. Apart from escape from London during the war, the sympathetic landscape, and the cheapness of studio space, the company of other artists was a magnet. It might be said, however, that many of the artists here, even today, mix attraction to

Hepworth and Nicholson's domination with desperate attempts to escape it - from making art that is too like "Barbara" or too obviously "Bennish."

Nicholson remains one of the most distinctive and original St. Ives artists - even though he found inspiration in other places. And the "discovery" he and his then-wife Winifred Nicholson and their friend Christopher Wood made of the naive painter-fisherman Alfred Wallis, painting his memories and preoccupations on scraps of cardboard for no better reason than "company," has its fascination.

It made Wallis a noteworthy figure in the history of English Modernism. It gave the Nicholsons and Wood a fresh, basic primitivism on which to build their unsophisticated-sophisticated new art. And above all it was a real link between this remote place and the high-minded portion of the British art world that has installed itself here since. But for Wallis, perhaps, the rest of the world might scarcely have heard of St. Ives. And its striking new museum might never have been built.

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