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

Barbara Hepworth, Single Form 1964
Barbara Hepworth
Single Form 1964
6,400 mm
Presented by the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, 1964

Rotunda: Introduction

Why does the exhibition start and finish with Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form?

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.

Naum Gabo Spiral Theme 1941
Naum Gabo Spiral Theme 1941
Cellulose acetate and Perspex
14 x 24.4 x 24.4cm

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.

Alfred Wallis, 'Houses at St Ives, Cornwall' ?circa 1928-42
Alfred Wallis
Houses at St Ives, Cornwall ?circa 1928-42
Oil on board
support: 267 x 318 mm

Purchased 1959© The estate of Alfred Wallis
Bernard Leach, 'Spherical Vase' circa 1927
Bernard Leach
Spherical Vase circa 1927
Reduced stoneware
object: 145 x 140 x 140 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2005© The estate of Bernard Leach

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.

Peter Lanyon, 'Coast' 1953
Peter Lanyon
Coast 1953
Watercolour, gouache, pencil and charcoal on paper
support: 466 x 620 mm
Bequeathed by Jean Sheers 2000, accessioned 2002© The estate of Peter Lanyon

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.

Georges Braque, 'The Billiard Table' 1945
Georges Braque
The Billiard Table 1945
Oil and sand on canvas
support: 891 x 1163 x 22 mm
frame: 1140 x 1170 x 80 mm
Purchased with assistance from the gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, the Art Fund, Tate Members and the Dr V.J. Daniel Bequest 2003© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2004

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 PicassoGeorges BraqueJuan Gris and Amedeo Modigliani became a kind of touchstone for younger artists. They were a reassuring presence after the atrocities of the war. 

1 of 3
  • Tate St Ives International Exchanges Gallery 3 and 4
    International Exchanges at Tate St Ives, galleries 3 & 4
  • Dame Barbara Hepworth, 'Pierced Form (Epidauros)' 1960
    Dame Barbara Hepworth
    Pierced Form (Epidauros) 1960
    object: 740 x 676 x 360 mm
    Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980© Bowness, Hepworth Estate
  • Arshile Gorky, 'Waterfall' 1943
    Arshile Gorky
    Waterfall 1943
    © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

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 LanyonSam 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 HeronPierre Soulages and Mark Rothko, who visited St Ives from New York in 1958, were also creating visual responses to the world around them.

Carl Andre, 'Steel Zinc Plain' 1969
Carl Andre
Steel Zinc Plain 1969
Steel and zinc plates
object: 9 x 1840 x 1840 mm, 250 kg
Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002

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