In the Twenties a number of modernist artists settled in St Ives. These included Christopher Wood, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who were to connect romantic English sensibilities to the European avant- garde: Braque and boats, pilchards and Picasso.
In the summer of 1928 Nicholson was introduced - by Wood - to Alfred Wallis, the primitive painter who had taken up the brush at the age of 70. Wallis, the most profound of English nave artists, painted, as he put it, 'for company'. Wallis was an ancient mariner, a former rag-and-bone man, a maker of ice-cream and a religious recluse haunted by demons who howled down his fireplace at night. He painted ships and the sea in yacht paints on cardboard - provided by the local grocer. He died in a poorhouse. Nicholson wanted to paint with the directness of Wallis.
This meeting between nave and sophisticated artist put St Ives on the international map of 20th-century art. It sparked the mature talent of Nicholson and Hepworth; it nurtured the work of Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter, all those who have made St Ives a by- word for a potent English avant-garde and the reason why the Tate Gallery St Ives opens today.
Designed by Eldred Evans and David Shalev, architects of Truro Crown Court (1985-88), the new Tate is a complex organism, slightly tortured in conception and fussy in detail. It is a tough concrete building underneath a febrile skin of white marble dash, slate roofs, projections and canopies. It fusses and bothers its way into its tightly corseted and vertiginous seaside site. It has little in common with the clarity of expression revealed in Wallis seascapes or Nicholson reliefs.
Instead, the architecture is complex and eventful. Portholes are cut into internal walls, offering glimpses of paintings and people next door; a great semi-circular sculpture court opens to views of the sea; and there are galleries that change in light and height as visitors amble along silent rubber floors, following a processional route from the second-floor lobby to a secret courtyard at the heart of the Tate.
The Tate was not an easy gallery to design, hemmed in by a nest of houses, studios and hotels, the road, the beach and the churchyard containing the grave of Alfred Wallis.
From the beach, the painting and sculpture galleries are reached only after some effort: up stairs or a ramp; through a circular loggia; past a paydesk; into a ground-floor lobby lit pink by a coloured glass window, designed by Patrick Heron; into a second circular lobby; up stairs guarded by over-elaborate timber balustrades; up past a first-floor bookshop; and up yet again, to a lobby that leads into the first painting gallery.
Each top-lit gallery is a different shape and size, each brighter than the last and each linked by low, narrow passages designed to act as breathing spaces. It is a little too self-conscious, but it is saved at every turn by the artworks themselves.
The latest outpost of the burgeoning Tate empire seems at odds with the spirit of Wallis and Nicholson. The most interesting artists came to St Ives to peel off the stiff raiments of the London art world and escape the stifling art establishment. Now their work will hang in this formal gallery - ordered, categorised, sanitised and art-historicised.
Perhaps this is inevitable. As neatly packaged culture insinuates its way into every last interstice of our public lives, we can hardly expect St Ives to escape. And if the formality of the new Tate is at odds with the spirit of Wallis and Nicholson, perhaps, none the less, it has a role like that of the Accademia in Venice. The Accademia acts as a catalyst around which the churches, scuole and smaller galleries - each housing masterpieces - revolve. The Accademia makes sense of these smaller art collections: likewise the Tate of St Ives may give coherence to the myriad of small galleries hidden up the lanes and alleys of the town.
But perhaps it need not have been a formal art gallery as such. The informal spirit of St Ives could have been reciprocated by a more 'informal' show, in the form of a tour. You would start by making your way to a simple new building - owned and run by the Tate, perhaps - awash with reflections of the sea, and buying a ticket and guide that would take you on a walk through the town to a number of small, yet related, galleries, studios and museums.
Imagine being able to see Ben Nicholson's studio on Porthmeor Beach, moving on to Barbara Hepworth's studio (now a museum). And then in and out of small, sunlit galleries, some new, some old, celebrating the spirit of freedom - and individuality - celebrated in the work of the best St Ives artists in a way that, in a large, air-conditioned gallery, it never can be.
Alternatively, it would not have been too difficult to have had a building that picked up clues for its plan from the white carved board reliefs that Nicholson began making in 1934 (see photo below). Clear, rational and elemental, these have a distinctly architectural quality. Nicholson was part of a group of artists, sculptors, writers and architects who talked of a 'constructivist' approach to art. All arts should work together, adopt common forms, express themselves in a unified or holistic way.
This approach might seem inflexible and dogmatic, yet the work it evinced was serene and timeless. The Tate might have done better to adopt such an approach in St Ives. 'Contexturalism', which is architect-speak for claiming that their building fits in with the warp and weft of the surrounding environment, is in reality an aesthetic packaging designed to
insinuate challenging buildings through stifling planning com-
mittees: nonsense, in other words.
The boats that sit so well in the harbour at St Ives are not 'contextual' - we love their gallant shapes and sunny colours. Nor are the lighthouses that Wallis so liked to paint; nor the railway that slinks along the seafront right into the heart of town.
St Ives is a jumble of buildings and urban episodes. A crystal-clear building that reflected the essence of the art of 20th-century St Ives would not have been the wrong thing to do.
This is not to say that the new Tate will not be liked and enjoyed. Residents and visitors alike will welcome a chance to see so many inspirational paintings, ceramics (Bernard Leach had his pottery here) and sculptures; they will relish having a new meeting place and drinks overlooking the sea. There will be many who will like the adventurous plan and organisation of Evans and Shalev's architecture. The Tate St Ives is an achievement and it sounds churlish to find faults with a project so energetically conceived and enthusiastically endorsed.
'I guessed it all,' said Alfred Wallis, when asked how he had managed to paint without so much as a day's tuition. Nave, yes, but, as Ben Nicholson recognised, there was more than a spark of natural genius and more than a germ of truth in what Wallis had to say. But, given what it has to achieve, how natural, how fresh can a public art gallery ever really be?
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