By the seaside, beside the point

The Tate St Ives opened to acclaim in 1993 and has attracted huge crowd s. But 18 months on Iain Gale laments a missed opportunity

`The gallery?" said the taxi driver. "It's made a huge difference to the town. Brought in much more trade. Off-season too. It's a great success. I've never been inside myself. But I'm told its very nice." After five and a half hours on the train from London you feel it had better be.

The Tate St Ives opened on 23 June, 1993, to widespread acclaim. Its few critics were those who had never been impressed by the art it celebrated and others, worried that the Tate might ghettoise one of the more difficult areas of British art, were soon

overcome by the general elation that here, at last, the public could view the art made in St Ives in context. From the gallery they would, as Patrick Heron put it, "see a green Lanyon headland in one direction and some Bryan Wynter rocks in another".

Visiting the gallery today, however, you are hard pressed to turn from either of these views to the art that they inspired. The vistas that excited Heron are clearly visible only from the gallery's cafe and roof. Certainly, the huge front window gives onto the ocean, but for a glimpse of the sights that fired Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, you'd be better advised to peer down one of the town's alleys - at blue water framed by white walls - or venture out on to the windswept moors of the Penwith peninsula.

If it's hard to see the landscape that inspired it, it's no easier to find the art itself. The museum's first gallery can only be reached by walking through three entrance halls, past two reception desks, a shop and too many doors marked "private", and climbing four flights of stairs. It's tiresome to the initiated and presumably confusing to the layman, on possibly his first encounter with the forbidding monolith of "Modern Art". For this is the audience which the gallery must address. In its first nin e months, 103,000 of the gallery's 150,000 visitors checked in during the peak holiday period of July to September. The Tate defines the remit of its western outpost as "to present changing displays of 20th-century art associated with Cornwall". But the

Tate St Ives cannot deny its more vital, implicit mission. It has a duty to make modernism accessible to the masses. And on the present showing it must fail.

That said, the introductory display in Gallery One, with its paintings by Wallis, Wood, Nicholson and Lanyon and its Naum Gabo constructions is sound enough, if disappointingly small. Beyond is the Upper Terrace, devoted entirely to a glass cabinet filled with dun-coloured pots of Bernard Leach. Individually these can be entrancing, beautiful objects. Seen en masse, as here, their delicate aesthetic is entirely missed.

Below, on the Lower Terrace, you will spot a few paintings, but don't try to reach them by the nearest stairs - they're a dead end. To get there you must walk around the terrace. Of the seven paintings hung here, by Heron, Lanyon, Hilton, Bomberg, Stoke s and Trevor Bell, only the Lanyon, Hilton and Heron are worth the detour. Look carefully though, and you might find, tucked into another dead end, next to the emergency exit, one of Denis Mitchell's spiralling bronzes and a fine little painting by John W ells related to it. Such gems are a rare relief from an abiding impression of mediocrity.

The Lower Terrace also ends in a cul de sac. To reach the other galleries you must turn back and return up the same stairs. Here, in an ante-room again largely devoted to pots, you might be lucky enough to notice Ben Nicholson's powerful February 28-53, hidden behind a door arch. More prominent is a poor painting of an anemone by Margaret Mellis, with a wall to itself. Like most of the art on show it has an "explanatory" label: "The strong decorative nature of this painting distorts the impression we are given of the artist's highly structured method of composition." Does that really help the visitor?

The museum's strongest space is Gallery Three, home to changing study displays. That its current exploration of Lanyon's Generation series of 1946-1949 should be so successful is testimony to the track record in the field of such temporary, educational exhibitions of the museum's curator, Michael Tooby. It is hard, though, to concentrate on the work on view. The air conditioning emits an irrepressible hum, and what is that nauseating smell? You might have noticed it on the stairs. It's the

grey rubber of the floor, which, if you're wearing rubber-soled shoes, will also squeak.

Now, as it diverts your attention from the walls, you begin to notice other architectural details: the way, for instance, that the white-painted wood of the chairs is beginning to chip and the white handrail of the stairs has worn to a dirty yellow. Eighteen months into its life, the gallery looks ready for a refit. In their zeal to capture the essential Englishness of St Ives modernism, the architects, Evans and Shalev, chose to finish their work in a limp compromise between craft and mass-production. They failed to account for the effect of 200,000 visitors a year. Now, worn and tarnished, the once clean, white lines essential to modernism no longer carry the necessary air of dynamic self-assurance.

It is not only the detailing which is at fault. It is a remarkable achievement to have made such a small space so confusing. To the uninitiated, a gallery so wearisome to explore might suggest similar qualities in the art it promotes. But the malaise runs deeper still.

At the time of the gallery's opening, the architects were hailed as having created a building that both reflected the gentle modernism of the St Ives artists and blended into the townscape. In retrospect, however, their design is merely a pastiche of the1930s Constructivist dream: a mannered hybrid of the De la Warr Pavilion and Whipsnade Zoo. Its imitative tweeness combines with the mediocrity of too many of the works on view and the various misguided attempts at spoon-fed interpretation, to se t up the very art it should promote to the assaults of those critics who have long characterised St Ives as a poor imitation of the "real thing", of international modernism and Abstract Impressionism.

Such criticism feeds off the sort of academic confusion evinced in the museum's permanent displays and typified by the incomprehensible display in the two galleries that inevitably round off a visit. Organised neither chronologically nor by discernible theme, these are introduced rather with pretentious titles which leave the viewer no clearer as to the significance of the art they contain.

The explanatory text writ large in the room devoted to "Myth, Narrative and Subject" concentrates mainly on Alan Davie - but fails to explain why his painting here is accompanied by one of William Scott's least impressive still-lifes and a second-rate Paul Feiler of St Buryan, or why one of Nicholson's 1950s Italian works should be hung alongside Lanyon's sublime Porthleven and a dreadful Karl Weschke. And I am still perplexed as to why Gallery Five should be entitled "In the Studio". Its works, we aretold - among them a huge Terry Frost triptych, a pre-St Ives Nicholson and Heron's important Horizontal Stripe painting of November 1957 (its international significance unexplained) - "show the interest of artists in pure form and colour as means of expr ession".

If they are to be used, such explanatory captions must explain. Here they are merely inconsequential pointers to the attitude of "muddling through" which appears to inform all of the museum's methodology.

The Tate St Ives must be more than a mere depository for the unique art in that town from the 1930s to the 1960s. St Ives art exhibits a potentially bewildering quality and diversity and it is the job of the gallery to place this in more than purely geographical context. There is more to the St Ives tradition than good views and a clear light.

If it is not to belittle the art it is intended to celebrate, this gallery must be a treasure house whose means of display and wealth of first-rate exhibits can rival America's finest. It is said that there is only room here for some 70 paintings, and a t present there seem to be even fewer than this. But if some of the remaining wall space were hung with paintings, and more of the vacant rooms turned over to sculpture, the number of works on view would be doubled. With the eye continuously engaged, perh aps the tiresome perambulation and tawdry decoration would be forgotten. With the Tate's extensive holdings, this would not be impossible.

Until such action is taken, however, what should be the flagship of historic British abstraction will remain a timid, quaint embarrassment.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
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
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'