Sam Thorne, Artistic Director of Tate St Ives, asks co-curators Sara Matson and Rachel Smith of International Exchanges - an exhibition exploring the wider national and international contexts of post-war St Ives - seven questions on the seven rooms on display
Rachel Smith: This iconic work was conceived in St Ives by an artist who is considered to be a ‘St Ives artist’, but it stands outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. Even fifty years after it was made, Hepworth’s sculpture continues to be seen to symbolise international peace and unity.
Sara Matson: So, as an artistic statement, Single Form is both local and global. It encapsulates the exhibition’s whole approach. The art of St Ives is shown to exist in a much wider world. The exhibition spans the period 1915–65. This was a time of major change, with two world wars, the atomic bomb and the early days of the Cold War.
Gallery 1: Constructive Networks
Why does the exhibition begin in 1915?
SM: That year was when purely abstract work first came to be exhibited on the international stage. This was an exciting time, when art moved beyond representing objects in the world and began to focus on colours and forms. Russia was one place where different kinds of abstraction began to develop. The 1910s was also a decade that saw the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Around this time, some artists experimented with abstraction as a way of rising above this turmoil.
RS: Artists like Kazimir Malevich and Naum Gabo thought that abstraction could reflect a new ‘reality’. These ideas proved very influential for many artists who would later come to be associated with St Ives.
Upper Gallery 2: The Handmade
What kinds of processes are being used in the works?
RS: There are four main processes we are looking at here. One is direct carving, which a number of younger British sculptors turned to after the First World War. This was a way of going back to the original form of the material itself, such as a stone block. The second is relief carving – that is, chipping away at a surface. The third is the creation of hand-marked works that are textured, weathered or worn, which led to the consideration of how paintings were becoming objects.
SM: The fourth involves studio pottery. As a reaction against industrialism, potters began to go back to very traditional methods.
RS: Artists were trying to save local traditions. This was happening in Japan and elsewhere at the same time as it was in Britain. In different places all over the world, people began to become influenced by folk techniques and the work of untutored or ‘naïve’ artists.
Lower Gallery 2: The Material Image
What is a ‘material image’?
SM: Following the horrors of the Second World War, there needed to be a new way of expressing human experience. Artists began to think differently about paint. To some, it came to feel like a subject in itself – a substance of expression.
RS: The desire to create something more human than pure abstraction could afford was very deliberate. As Peter Lanyon once said, ‘Paint represents experience but makes it actual.’
SM: The ‘material image’ became one way of relating abstraction to real life human experience.
Apse: Return to the Modern Masters
Who were the ‘modern masters’?
RS: The artists in this gallery were working inParisaround the time of the Second World War. They had been active since the first decades of the twentieth century – that is, since the early days of European modernism.
SM: Older artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Amedeo Modigliani became a kind of touchstone for younger artists. They were a reassuring presence after the atrocities of the war.
Galleries 3 and 4: Body and Environment
How did nature influence these works?
RS: In so many different ways! These artists weren’t only responding to the landscape – they were reacting to more elemental forces. Their work becomes influenced by light, flow and the sensation of natural rhythms.
SM: Intriguingly, the painters Peter Lanyon, Sam Francis and Alan Davie were all pilots. They immersed themselves in the landscape in a new way – from above. Their works are direct responses to physical experiences.
RS: But the exploration of landscape wasn’t specific to St Ives; it was happening all over the world. Artists like Patrick Heron, Pierre Soulages and Mark Rothko, who visited St Ives from New York in 1958, were also creating visual responses to the world around them.
Gallery 5: Into the Sixties
Why have you included these metal tiles and why can we walk on them?
RS: The 1960s was a time of all kinds of social struggles – from civil rights and feminism to the Vietnam War protests. The existing order was being questioned. This is what is happening with Carl Andre’s tiles: rather than looking up at a sculpture, we can walk on top of it. Interestingly, Andre still refers to himself as a landscape artist.
SM: For their part, some artists in St Ives began to explore new ways of working. They tried to rethink what their position was, after the triumph of abstract expressionism and the birth of pop art. Like Carl Andre, Bob Law was a pioneer of minimalism. His pared-down experiences of landscapes tried to capture landscape in the ‘mind’s eye’. Many artists felt that art had become somehow divorced from real life, so they tried to bring real life back into the art. Some were literally bringing the world into their canvases.
International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915–1965 in on display at Tate St Ives until 28 September 2014