EXHIBITIONS / Cornish pastiche is short on filling: The new Tate Gallery St Ives is a memorable construction. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good place for showing art

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The Independent Culture
NEW MUSEUMS for modern fine art are a rarity, at least in Britain, and for the moment the Tate Gallery St Ives, which opened last week, is of more interest than the paintings and sculptures that form its first exhibition. The building is by Eldred Evans and David Shalev, already known for their law courts at Truro, and when it settles down will surely be a familiar and popular part of this holiday town.

It's the biggest and most expensive building in St Ives, dwarfing the surrounding municipal offices. Cottages, holiday apartments and cheap flats around the museum have now taken on a tawdry appearance. This is unfortunate, but it's not the Tate's fault that St Ives is not a rich town, and Evans and Shalev have made a generally successful attempt to give their building visual relevance to other St Ives' houses. This is done by both its external features and internal scale. Michael Tooby, the first curator of the Tate's outpost, explains that the cleft-like staircases, sudden open spaces and views from a height have been influenced by the nature of the town itself.

Most visitors will take home a memory of the rotunda at the building's entrance. From the outside it reminds you of progressive public architecture of the 1930s. Fair enough. Inside, though, it encloses a large space seemingly without function. It's not for showing art. Here's my criticism of the building. For such an elaborate and costly exercise it contains so little. We're accustomed to galleries with vast service departments, shops, restaurants. In this one, pomp is mixed with a salute to St Ives' dinkiness: all for the display of 65 paintings and 17 sculptures, several of which are trivial or boring.

I approached the museum as a holidaymaker. After all, how many visitors won't be on holiday? And I think people will want more for their money. We surfers and paddlers are not that appreciative of the Tate's new predilection, in Cornwall as on Millbank, for 'spare' hanging. The Tate trustees' repeated promise that they will not charge for admission has got lost in their negotiations with the Cornwall County Council. It costs pounds 2.50. The essential guide to the museum, which illustrates many works not on display, costs pounds 10. And then the restaurant occupies the whole of the top floor. Lovely view, decent meals, but when there I felt neither in the museum nor the town.

Art is lost when you sit on the restaurant terrace, and anyway St Ives is packed with places to eat and drink with children. Let me leave the art world for a second to recommend the Castle Inn, a pub so moving to its landlord that he writes poetry about it:

This house is a Castle

An Inn to quench the fire

A meeting place of young and old

The worker and the Squire

Verses traditional in style and sentiment but you know what he's talking about. In the pub I was thinking about the alleged obscurity of modern painting and sculpture, its appeal only to initiates, etc, etc; but surely the truly opaque contemporary art form is poetry? New painting is by comparison pellucid as the glisten of morning dew.

Looking at the town and the museum I became interested in the social sense of the St Ives artists. They were part of the local community and drew recruits from that community, this despite the fact that they were not only artists but Modernists. They got on with people, I suggest, because of the evidently artisan nature of their activity and because the potters, also easily classed as workmen, were a natural link between the fine artists and the town.

As the last line of the landlord's poem indicates, there was never a middle class in St Ives. I doubt if the artists contributed much to the local economy, apart from rent, but neither did they take anything away. They were not in alliance with a wealthier and better-educated group, for there was no such thing. Nor was Modernism suspect to the strong local religious culture. In more prosperous cities Methodism has usually been hostile to modern art. Not so in St Ives. Visiting its monuments to primitive Methodism - the Zion Congregational Church, the Barnoom Gospel Room - I felt they represented something so remote from riches or world culture that a Modernist artist might feel more at home than in, say, Garsington, Cambridge or Chelsea.

St Ives veterans talk about a 'sense of place' more than about their sense of social freedom. But this gave the air of social relaxation to paintings that otherwise would be merely picturesque. St Ives produced the last decent British paintings that looked at a pretty place and its inhabitants without being academic or condescending. There was a social reason. The modern painters had an artist among them whose presence, personal genius and occupation inspired democratic respect. This was Alfred Wallis, the St Ives fisherman whose naive paintings they recognised as having more pictorial truth than their own sophistications.

Wallis (a salvationist like so many in his trade) opens the exhibition and his pictures are matched by few works in the rooms that follow. His first enthusiasts were Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, and it is proper that their works are on the adjoining walls. Nicholson is obviously a superior artist, if knowledge, intelligence and skill mean anything. Yet they do not mean everything, and Wallis had something that Nicholson did not. I can't define it. I know that he was the most convincing of the 20th-century 'primitive' artists. I know this was because he imitated not professional but amateur art, the kind that can be seen in the St Ives municipal museum, with its painted bits of boat and pictures of fishermen cowed before God; but what made Wallis wonderful is elusive. Perhaps God had something to do with it.

Certainly he painted as though life were a matter of death and renewal. Another native- born Cornishman, Peter Lanyon, did his best paintings when he was most affected by mining disasters in a locality he knew well. Lanyon is such a prominent figure in the Cornish scene that he cannot easily be placed in the Tate's account of the St Ives school. His retrospective has been touring the country recently. It ended at Newlyn last month. The show made a lot of sense - so much so that I think this museum cannot do justice to individual St Ives artists.

If you match the paintings now in St Ives against the pictures of which the artists were capable, you notice that the Tate has never built the best possible collection of Cornish art. Writing now as an art professional rather than a holidaymaker, I register disappointment. No one will deny that it's good to have a museum of St Ives art. What I question is whether it's the best museum we can imagine.

The St Ives gallery shows that its parent institution has seldom been quick enough to buy the finest works of the artists so splendidly installed 20 miles from Land's End. There are top-class works by Gabo, Nicholson and Frost. None the less, the Tate ought to have bought more paintings by Frost, among others. Bryan Winter looks as impressive as it is possible to make him.

Adrian Stokes, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Margaret Mellis are below par. A more recent Patrick Heron painting is needed. The room devoted to Barbara Hepworth's sub-Henry Moore drawings is embarrassing. Not one sculpture makes a real impression, apart from the little perspex Gabos. Here's a new museum whose collections should be strengthened. The paradox is that the Tate Gallery St Ives will have the prestige to raise the market value of the artists it celebrates - perhaps beyond the point at which it can afford to buy them.

Tate Gallery St Ives (0736 796226).

(Photographs omitted)