“St. Ives”

St. Ives, a fishing village in Cornwall, England, was, from the mid ’30s through the mid ’60s, a major site of British art production. Important works of painting, sculpture, and ceramics were produced by such artists as Terry Frost, Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson, Kenneth Quick, Adrian Stokes, Alfred Wallis, and Christopher Wood, among others. Many of these artists developed a special relationship with Japan, by way of the relationship between the ceramicists Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach. In a stunning exhibition of their neglected art, the works of this special place and time have been lovingly assembled, inviting comparisons between the sociopolitical and cultural histories of Great Britain and Japan, both island kingdoms.

The exhibition is suggestive on a number of levels. It makes clear that while certain artists may seem more masterful than others, a context always exists that is more significant than any of them or any one work of art—that subsumes them all. It is also a good argument for the importance of solitude to sustained creativity. St. Ives is a bleak, remote place. Yet several important artists flourished in this solitude: Gabo, Hepworth, and Nicholson produced some of their finest work there. Environment played an unconscious and conscious role in these artists’ creativity. It appears not just through allusions to the ocean and shore, as in the 1957–58 sculptures of Barbara Hepworth, but in a certain elated yet inward mood. The exhibition also suggests the essentially intimate character of art: it is made by an individual for another individual, whatever its sociocultural and stylistic contexts. It is not part of standard social spectacle, and in fact usually eschews such pandering to predetermined taste. It is finally beyond taste, being a demonstration of a certain kind of existence—an articulation of a certain sense of life.

One of the important discoveries of this exhibition is the painting of Patrick Heron, who should take his place as one of the key figures of ’60s abstraction. Another is Bernard Leach, who shows how two cultures can be artistically integrated with superior results. The development over a 30-year period of Nicholson’s treatment of the local landscape deserves special mention. It shows how one scene, singular but hardly unique, can be freshly reperceived and reconceived without end, ultimately in a highly individual mix of representational and abstract modes. These pictures demonstrate not only how it is enough to have a single environment to sustain one’s inspiration, but how this seemingly obvious, simple environment is enough to catalyze the discovery of one’s own complex, enigmatic character, and to generate artistic subtlety.

Donald Kuspit