Exhibition: St Ives
Venue: York City Art Gallery
York City Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, St Ives, displays the unusual and unexpected modernist inspirations from a school of artists living in St Ives, Cornwall through the 1920s to the 1960s. The abstract artworks displayed invoke a nostalgic reminder of the town’s status as a progressive creative mecca in the early half of the twentieth century, at a time when St Ives is predominantly known as a famous seaside resort.
An exhibition based on the creative output of a small Cornish town may seem at odds with the Northern York City Art Gallery. However, a large number of the artists on display have links with Yorkshire; most famously Wakefield born Barbara Hepworth, Sir Terry Frost who was a teacher at Leeds School of art and Alexander Mckenzie who spent his youth in Yorkshire and Liverpool. Arts Council Director, Vivienne Henry, further explains the motivations behind hosting such an exhibition in York. In 2006 The Arts council, who are known for funding young and emerging artists, introduced a scheme called ‘Turning Point’. This scheme arose from a desire to be dynamic, groundbreaking and make a sustainable impact in the world of art by supporting art organisations, and maximizing the accessibility of great art. The aims and ideals of the Arts Council are mirrored throughout this exhibition. Hepworth, Nicholson and Gabo were notable key players in reinvigorating the artistic movement in St Ives upon the outbreak of war. Their work was massively and divergently influential, as this exhibition attests, exhibiting their work alongside that of their contemporaries and assistants. St Ives is conducive to passing by the status quo.
From the outset, acknowledgement was given to space and movement in the gallery. The three dominant sculptures on display are stylistically akin to Hepworth’s Modernist tradition. Denis Mitchell and John Milne’s golden, Star-Trek-like creations, blossom with an enigmatic skin worthy of a Hepworth masterpiece. The sculptresses renowned work Icon has a strangely naturalistic form next to her assistants’ more Neolithic creations. There is an obvious community spirit between the artists. Naum Gabo’s Opus Eight painting is displayed next to his artistic comrades Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, incorporating the clean blues of Hepworth’s realistic The Surgeon and the abstract lines of Nicholson.
The communal vein is extended to the ceramics on display. Bernard Leach, who is regarded as the father of British Studio pottery, and Shoji Hamada‘s mottled earthenware creations, introduce an oriental Eastern theme to the collection. They form some viable links to traditionalism and the adoption of more comparable connections between past and present interpretations of this famous part of Cornwall. The inclusion of these works is entirely fitting as the gallery contains one of the most important collections of 20th century studio pottery in the UK and possesses a range of 12,500 pieces in their collection. Also, this internationalist theme signifies the importance of the St Ives artists toward the modernist approaches taken up by artists such as Picasso and Braque. This small school of artists have inspired even major American artists as Rothko.
The St Ives exhibition does not strive to shock or conform to stereotypes. Instead, it aims to demonstrate the vast range of work and artists involved in the movement without overwhelming the viewer. From the realism of Alfred Wallis’ Ship in rough sea the works quickly become more abstract including significant works by Terry Frost and Patrick Heron. Low placement of the placards allows the viewers to think and interpret the work for themselves, though there were some complaints about the vague nature of the descriptions. Although Barbara Hepworth fans will be sorely disappointed by the lack of her work, those going with an open mind and to discover their new favourite artist are in for a treat.