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

Article excerpt

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 and, 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. …

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