A Place in the Sun: How Did a Fishing Village Become an Avant-Garde Haven?

Article excerpt

Object: Gesture: Grid--St Ives and the International Avant-Garde

Tate St Ives, Cornwall

Many artists we now label "modern" in fact reacted against the forces of modernity that led during the first half of the 20th century to two world wars, political and social unrest and spiritual disillusionment. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, along with the psychoanalytically inclined critic Adrian Stokes and his wife, the artist Margaret Mellis, sought refuge in St Ives, Cornwall.

Leaving the "centre" for the periphery was nothing new. Attracted by the seaside town's superb light, Whistler and Walter Sickert had made the long journey west to St Ives in the winter of 1883-84. Gauguin had gone to Brittany to paint peasants, believing they exemplified a sort of spiritual purity in contrast to the urban. The end of the 19th century had brought the rise of Utopian communities such as the French Barbizon school, which painted enplein air, and the Worpswede group on the north German moors. These far-flung locations provided artists with a kind of primitive essence, a sense of timeless authenticity amid great social and political change.

With connections to Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Jean Arp, Nicholson's and Hepworth's studio in Hampstead had already become part of the avant-garde European art scene. It was a magnet for growing numbers of British and European artists, many of them cultural emigres fleeing the political chaos sweeping Europe. These included the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian and the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, who followed Nicholson and Hepworth to Cornwall. The sense of displacement brought about by the war had a profound effect on a generation of British artists.

The centre of the art world was already shifting from Paris to New York. The Utopian vision of art as a form of spiritual renewal and social advancement, which had been the ideal of many modernists before the war, became less sustainable in its aftermath. Fresh tensions arose between reality and imagination, figuration and abstraction, elements of narrative and formalistic purity. A new exhibition, sourced from the Tate's collection, explores the shared visual language of artists working in Europe and America from the 1930s to the late 1970s. …