Tricks of the light: Weird visions in art

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An upcoming exhibition at Tate St Ives delves into the realm of the supernatural. But is it magical, asks Tom Lubbock, or just mumbo jumbo?

Could it be magic? Would it be better if it were? For most of the 20th century, modern art was considered a secular thing. Modern man didn't believe in God and spirits. Modern art didn't either. But recently the story has been turned around. More and more, modernism has been linked to the supernatural – to myth, ritual, visions, the occult, all that.

Last year, Traces of the Sacred appeared at the Pompidou Centre. It implicated practically every famous modern artist in the otherworldly, and introduced some lesser-known weirdos for good measure. Now we have a domestic version. The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art opens next weekend at Tate St Ives.

The title makes a local connection. The Dark Monarch is a novel by Sven Berlin, artist and writer, member of the St Ives artistic colony. Written in 1962, it was a roman à clef too libellous to be published at the time. I've never read it, and I'm sure I never will. But that phrase is certainly spellbinding.

St Ives is famous for its quality of light. And the Tate there normally has clear white spaces. But the powers of darkness have fallen on it now. The gallery's wide glass front is tinted over. The rooms are painted in shady hues. The works are gathered densely, more like a collection than an exhibition. The entrance piece is The Child's Dream, a sweet little woolly unicorn, pickled by Damien Hirst. Ahead wait standing stones and haunted woods and mumbo jumbo. But already the show is conjuring up a faery, spooky air.

In this context, familiar and austere works of modern art are given a new, weird emphasis. Take two Barbara Hepworth sculptures: Two Figures (Menhirs) and Group of Three Magic Stones. What would normally have passed just as poetic titles here become something more. What are they suggesting? That there was a bit of a pagan in Dame Barbara? That these shiny pieces hold ancient power?

The trick continues. Classic pieces of British modernism are subjected to a series of double-takes. You thought it was plain art. It acquires darker depths. Henry Moore's stone Mask – might it actually have a ritual function? Or Graham Sutherland's Horned Forms: in its half-abstraction, might there lurk the forces of an animistic nature? Or Paul Nash's Mansions of the Dead: this surely is like some spiritualist vision of the hereafter. And Nash could have provided much more. Almost all his mature works have an overt visionary edge.

But I don't think any of these artists actually held any pagan or spiritualist convictions. They simply knew (say) the standing stones of Cornwall and saw where their art could draw strength. And though this is a show that tends to blur differences, compacting the genuinely occult with the charmingly spooky, there are obviously distinctions to be made.

Take the now almost forgotten Cecil Collins (he had a retrospective at the Tate only 20 years ago). He created a world of sun-faced angels and holy fools. It came out of surrealism and developed into a kind of Blake/Tarot imagery. The point is, it's very sincere, the art of a believer. What exactly Collins believed in, I'm not quite sure. Perhaps it could only be expressed in his pictures.

Or if Collins is getting obscure, how about another former British Surrealist, Ithell Colquhoun. Like many Surrealists, she was expelled from the movement. And like many Surrealists she had occultist and magical tendencies, to which she then devoted herself even more seriously. Her visual works are often weak. But perhaps that's the mark of the true believer.

Meanwhile, in the contemporary side of the show – but it isn't separated out, all the works are interleaved non-chronologically, so as to set up odd connections – the mood is a kind of faux-seriousness. These artists are certainly not believers, though they know their subject. They're attracted to occultism for its pseudo-methodical nuttiness, the way it's a kind of parody of science. They can pick it up, and play with it further.

It's hard to describe the cod-magic gadgetry devised by Cerith Wyn-Evans, Adam Chodzko or Mark Titchner. But their titles communicate the general spirit: Anthropomorphic Portrait by Sulwyn Evans, Wilhelm Reich in Black Ash Hell. Jokey is the word.

The only artist to make something in this vein worth looking at is the sculptor Eva Rothschild. In High Times, cascades of leather strips hang inexplicably in mid-air. A new age aesthetic meets a trick of very homemade conjuring. It's a proper piece of sculpture. And it's not jokey, it's funny.

But as I say, things are mixed up here. The believing, the non-believing and the faux believing are exhibited cheek by jowl, and the effect is to cast a spell of confusion over the whole show. Of course, we all like the supernatural, and the more the merrier. It's fun to see the solemn forms of Henry Moore recast as Hammer horror props. For ages we've heard how modern art was inspired by tribal art. So let's take "primitivism" literally.

Yes, let's go further, and imagine that all those unnoticed public sculptures suddenly become conspicuous, as, week by week, horrifically, at the dead of night, they are used as altars for human sacrifice. The police are baffled. Art historians are called in. Should we have foreseen it, when, in the 1950s, these apparently benign lumps of art were plonked all over the country? What sinister cult is making use of them? Was Moore himself a member? It's a good beginning for a story.

It makes my point as well, too. Of course Henry Moore isn't really voodoo. And when it comes to the occult etc, one must decide what one believes: yes or no. The Dark Monarch has collected a marvellous variety of evidence, but it blurs where it could distinguish. It's not alone. There are writers today, like Peter Ackroyd or Marina Warner, who love to invoke the supernatural, without really ever making it quite clear whether for them it's a real realm or a handy metaphor.

They're like those soft theologians who say that God is only a name for our sense of ultimate meaningfulness. For these soft magi the supernatural is only a name for our sense of endless possibility, a way out from the grey rational world, imbuing life with depth and romance. They don't really credit spirits, powers, demons. They couldn't cast a spell to save their lives. They want to borrow the glamour and prestige of magic but they don't reckon at all with what magic, if it existed, would imply.

So here's a telling tale from the history of British magic, not from art but politics. Perhaps you remember, back in the 1980s, when unemployment was rising. Margaret Thatcher said that, if only she had a magic wand, she would get rid of it at a stroke. Her point was, she didn't wish it; sadly, it was an economic necessity.

But think: never mind the unemployed, if Margaret Thatcher had really wielded a magic wand, what else would she have done with it? It beggars belief. If people generally had magic wands, the world would be a madhouse. Let fantasy stay fantasy. The resistance of reality to human wishes, strange to say, is a blessing beyond imagining. Art, please note.

The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art, Tate St Ives (01736 796226; www.tate.org.uk/stives) Sat to 10 January

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum