VISUAL ARTS Christopher Wood Tate St Ives

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The Independent Culture
The day that Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood "discovered" the flea-bitten fisherman-turned-painter Alfred Wallis lurking in the back streets of St Ives has become a kind of mythic moment in the history of British art. It is generally taken as the beginning of the town's longstanding involvement with modern painting, a relationship cemented three years ago with the opening of the Tate St Ives on the edge of Porthmeor Beach.

The new displays that opened there last week, including an exhibition of Wood's work, are the first to look closely at the early years and the result, at last, is a gallery that makes sense of the town's artistic credentials. By scattering Wood's pictures in the context of his contemporaries, including Nicholson and Wallis, a thread develops that gives a welcome sense of continuity to the building as a whole.

The focus of the Tate's exhibition, grouped in a central room, is Les Deux Cornouailles, the pictures Wood painted in Cornwall and in the area of Brittany that shares its name. For the most part they are simple scenes of sea-side life - tiny white cottages clinging to dark green hills; ragged coastlines; deep blue seas and brown-sailed boats. Taken individually they are cheerful images with a magical, frozen quality, but seen in numbers they take on a different feel. Something slightly odd, almost sinister, inhabits the room, a sense heightened by the knowledge that Wood killed himself three weeks after finishing the last of them.

In some ways Wood was a more interesting, more obviously troubled painter than these predominantly sunny paintings suggest. He was born in 1901 and brought up in modest middle-class fashion on the outskirts of Liverpool before escaping to London then Paris at the start of the Twenties. Aided by his looks and legendary charm he soon became the one English artist of his generation "found acceptable in the Paris monde of Cocteau and Picasso", as his contemporary, the novelist Anthony Powell, put it, "a convenient bisexuality being no handicap in that particular sphere".

The perimeters of the Tate's exhibition Between Two Cornwalls are very specific and there is no reflection of Wood's schizophrenic need to balance the tranquillity of Cornwall and Brittany with the excesses of life in the city. Within the boundaries of the exhibition the choice of pictures works well, but it leaves a slight sense of missed opportunity. The point is made that Wood brought something unusual, even foreign, to the insular world of English painting in the 1920s and that his death at the age of 29 in August 1930 was a tragic loss, but there was more to his life's work than appears here. The selection makes a lovely exhibition, but he could have been even better served by the inclusion of a few key works - Zebra and Parachute, perhaps, or The Yellow Man - pictures that pointed the way out of the 1920s and into the decades that lay ahead.

To 20 April (01736 796543). Richard Ingleby's biography of Christopher Wood is published in paperback next week by Allison & Busby, pounds 14.99

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