The Tate St Ives in Cornwall, England presents International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915-1965 from May 17 through September 28, 2014. The retrospective examines the broader national and international circumstances that influenced art in St Ives from the 1940s to the 1960s. It surveys the art traditions and histories in St Ives preceding the future opening of the Tate’s new galleries in 2016.
The “International Exchange” exhibit illustrates just how post-war art in St Ives was inspired by two developments in the history of modern art. The first change was the idealistic principles of constructivism from Moscow in the 1910s through Berlin and Paris between the world wars. The second advancement was the application of craft that connected to the carvings of Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi and the ceramics of British studio potter, Bernard Leach among others.
Major works by English painter, Patrick Heron, Cornish painters, Peter Lanyon and Alfred Wallis among other artists will be on view, in conjunction with their contemporaries such as Georges Braque, Mark Rothko and David Hockney. The artists located in Europe, Japan and North America are being brought together to identify their art within inclusive formal, methodical and theoretical discussions. The exhibit also includes major loans from private and public collections within the United Kingdom and abroad. The museum’s aim is to identify the artists’ encounter with the region within international artistic and visual interests.
Situated on the north side of the Penwith peninsula that trails down to Land’s end, visitors will find St Ives. According to the St Ives Society of Artists, the length of the village is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled alleyways and streets that harbor granite cottages, old sail-lofts and pilchard palaces, which now mostly house studios to galleries. Buildings sweep out from the picturesque harbor, as depicted innumerable times in photographs and paintings. At the forefront is the Mariner’s Church, residence to the art society, creates “a majestic foil to the jumble of smaller buildings,” and can be observed from nearly every viewpoint.
St Ives was the idyllic village for the marine painter, since the peninsula presented varied coastal scenery and studio spaces were ample. The climate was milder and it was possible to paint outdoors for the majority of the year. Its location also offered a better balance of daylight hours, which was significant at a time when workshops were lit by candlelight.
During the First World War, while many of the artists left the colony to fight, Bernard Leach came to St Ives and he brought the Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada to help construct the first oriental climbing kiln. Leach hoped to bridge the gap between eastern and western philosophies through art. Leach would become a leader in the world of potters. Uniting their ceramic traditions and techniques, the two potters influenced the development of the 20th century studio pottery movement.
When World War II began, the village’s pier was used as a departure point for British and allied troops for deployment in Europe. Mariner’s Church was appropriated as a field hospital until 1945 when it became the permanent address of the St Ives’ Society.
Far removed from the bomb threats of the Second World War, artists such as sculptress Barbara Hepworth, left London to settle in St Ives. Before long, Russian Constructivism, Futurism, Cubism, eastern philosophy and even English marine traditions were debated behind the blackout curtains. The village’s importance in the arts continued to grow.
By 1938, the British painters, Robert Borlase Smart and Leonard Fuller established the St Ives School of Painting. It was a scheme that they had pledged to do together while deep in the trenches of the Western Front over 25 years before.
St Ives’ paramount moments arose between the 40s and the early 60s with Hepworth, Russian émigré constructivist, Naum Gabo and studio potter, Bernard Leach. All three were leading artists of “constructive” art. These artists had lived and worked among the avant-garde European artists. Their arrival to the village brought a new vigor to St. Ives, and it was becoming an exciting destination for artists.
In 1946, Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin and Wells found the Crypt group, in the course of this, challenging the authority of the traditional St Ives Society of Artists. Group exhibitions included works by artists such as Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, Patrick Heron, Kit Barker and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham among others. The exhibitions were held in the Mariner’s Church crypt, just below the St Ives Society of Artists. Plenty of criticism arose in the press about the exhibition, and many scoffed at the “coziness of the art colony.”
The St Ives artists gained international recognition in the 1950s for their nature-based methodology to abstraction. St Ives’ status as a modern art center grew and the British Council chose to promote St Ives internationally. During this decade, internationally renowned artists that include Mark Rothko traveled to St Ives.
The Tate exhibit is the first major art retrospective in almost 30 years, and it coincides with 21-year anniversary of the Tate St Ives Museum. The International Exchange: Modern Art and St.Ives exhibit is an aptly given name for the retrospective, as the village is one of the second most notable art centers in Britain and has had a remarkable presence in the art world.
By Dawn Levesque