During the 1950s, a group of painters gathered around the Cornish harbour town of St Ives, among which were some of the leading modern artists of their time. They represented Britain's contribution to an international search for an art that respected modernism's abstract values and was suited to the postwar, post-Holocaust world. Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Bryan Wynter explored the sensitive zone between representation and abstraction: testing the expressive potential of the material of paint itself, and of the mark and gesture, while retaining semblances of subject matter, external references or imagery. Similar explorations and experiments were being conducted elsewhere by a host of artists including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko in the US, Jean Dubuffet in France and Alberto Burri in Italy. This important British contribution has largely been written out of the histories. Even in Britain it has too often been considered in parochial terms.
Accounts of the artists of St Ives not only tend to focus on their use of landscape and nature as a source, but to present it as a kind of unwitting inevitability due to their location. A new exhibition, however, sets out to view the art of St Ives from the other end of the telescope; to position it not in relation to where it was made but to what was made, how it was made and to its relationship with art made elsewhere in the same era.
The repeated association of the "art of St Ives" with the town itself was most famously seen in the Tate gallery's great 1985 survey, St Ives: Twenty Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery. The exhibition's catalogue included a personal memoir by the architect David Lewis, a member of the St Ives artistic community, which begins and ends with landscape: "So the landscape was the common factor for all of us, a presence of perpetual power which in its transitoriness reminds us of our own … any pathway we followed, over moors, or down the shafts of mines, or along the corridors of gales, led only to oneself."
While Lewis highlighted the ways in which artists found in landscape a symbol for that which they wished to express in their work, the rest of the catalogue emphasised local events rather than offering a broader perspective or context. Such localism has been a dominant and debilitating aspect of accounts of the art of St Ives from the 1950s to the present. The first book dedicated to the subject was Denys Val Baker's Britain's Art Colony by the Sea (1959). Its cover sports a photograph of Peter Lanyon looking across the harbour with a palette and brushes in his hand as if poised to paint the picturesque scene, even though he was by then a successful abstract painter. The book's blurb typifies most writing on St Ives art: "This is not a book of art criticism. It is a book about St Ives and the surrounding districts of West Cornwall and the art colony that has developed there."
In contrast, the leading art historian and critic Charles Harrison proposed that one should not assume that the place of St Ives necessarily played a determining role in the art that was made there. Artistic developments, he suggested, might equally have been determined by external factors that could help explain the visual parallels between work such as Lanyon's Thermal and that of artists such as Willem de Kooning. The new exhibition takes up Harrison's call for a non-localised appraisal of St Ives. It presents the works of the major St Ives artists in conjunction with those by contemporaries who engaged with common technical and ethical issues. Harrison argued that the key technical issue for the artists was the reformulation of painting and pictorial space in the wake of cubism. Others might explain it in terms of the crisis of modern art following the rise of fascism and the erosion of the optimism of prewar movements. As the critic Lawrence Alloway wrote, the postwar generation of artists "could neither start again, nor stay as it was, as if nothing had happened"; it was a generation "torn by conflicts of prewar formality and postwar directness".
For Harrison, St Ives had provided a safe haven where the values of international modernism might be protected: "Under the cultural conditions that prevailed not simply in England but in Europe during the war and its aftermath – conditions characterised by themes of patriotism, nationalism, xenophobia, insularity and by that peculiar fascinated angst which was expressed in Graham Sutherland's work and then in Francis Bacon's – an unadulterated modernist culture could only continue in rustication."
In that way, the critic set the art of St Ives apart from the neoromanticism of Henry Moore and Sutherland that had become the dominant form of modern art in 1940s Britain, and aligned it with the high modernism of Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian. Certainly, a defining characteristic of postwar St Ives art is that it had a direct link to the utopian ideals of the international modern movement of the 1930s. The whole St Ives phenomenon had been started by the migration there, at the beginning of the war, of Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. Gabo's sculpture Spiral Theme influenced a number of painters and the presence of these veterans of the prewar international modern movement shaped the thinking of the artists of 1950s St Ives. With them came the culture of Circle, the 1937 publication that surveyed the international constructivist movement in painting, sculpture and architecture, from the suprematism of Kazimir Malevich in pre-revolutionary Russia to its own moment when, in the age of fascism, London became briefly the capital of abstract art.
Of equal importance is that, as well as the culture of 30s utopianism, the art of St Ives tapped into a tradition of primitivism, specifically of a kind of ruralist revival of the handmade and of craft. The untutored painter Alfred Wallis and the potter Bernard Leach were not just neighbours to the artists of St Ives, they were talismanic embodiments of values at the heart of those artists' practice. Leach's pots and such paintings as Wallis's Houses at St Ives represented a timeless, non‑metropolitan culture – a kind of authenticity that contrasted with the knowing sophistication of mainstream culture.
Heron dubbed those artists who developed their careers after the war the "middle generation", meaning they were in the middle between the prewar modernists and younger painters who would be fundamentally influenced by the American abstract expressionists. It was a number of years after this middle generation returned from the war that distinctive and powerful works of art began to emerge. Around 1953, out of the rich mix of constructivism, primitivism and direct experiences of war, emerged ground-breaking works of art in which thickly applied, irregular areas of paint became expressive vehicles in themselves. These works could take their place alongside pieces from continental Europe and America that were variously labelled "abstract expressionism", "action painting", Tachisme, Art Informel, Art Brut and so on.
The history of St Ives can be written as an account of the many artists and their associates who came and went in that small town and its surrounding country: who knew whom, who drank where, who showed at this gallery or that. Or it can be based on judgments of quality and relevance in relation to the best art of its time. For a long time, such was the power of one historical account that it was difficult to position British – or, even mainland European – art alongside American art without inviting predictable assumptions and accusations of influence. As the art historian Serge Guilbaut commented in 1990: "Since the 'triumph' of American painting in the 1960s, it has been difficult to discuss anything in the art culture of the 1950s but abstract expressionism." Heron was one of the first to identify the "cultural imperialism" of American critics' accounts of art history after the second world war. It is unfortunate that his critical values were so close to the same formalism that came to dominate accounts of the abstract expressionism that he could only argue his case through rather ambitious claims for British artists' precedence over the Americans.
A better argument would be to say that there were other matters at play and that formalist critiques served to obscure much of the underlying meanings of postwar painting. Among the influences on the art were issues of place, primitivism, craft, myth and nature. These timeless qualities were embraced by artists seeking reassurance and solidity having witnessed the depths to which human beings could sink.
The new exhibition sets out not simply to demonstrate that the artists of St Ives were pursuing a line of inquiry that they shared with artists elsewhere, but to try to reclaim some of these hidden values and issues. That an artist chose to live and make art in St Ives, and that their art drew in some way on their environment, is not irrelevant to this international view of postwar art. Artists such as Lanyon, Heron and Hilton are not important simply because their work relates formally to international contemporaries; nor are they also-rans because they retained an allegiance to subject matter. That allegiance is part of their international significance. The art made in Cornwall in the 1950s was specific to that place and time, and was an important part of longer and wider artistic developments to which that place was itself significant.
Ironically, however, the most internationally prominent work of St Ives art was by a sculptor of the older generation. In the early 1960s, Barbara Hepworth had returned to some of her earlier ideas. She realised that the ideals of the 1930s still had value. It was, after all, veterans of the ideological battles of the 1930s who founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other peace organisations. Hepworth returned to her totemic Single Form idea for a monument to Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary general at the United Nations, to stand outside the UN's Manhattan headquarters. The UN was an organisation that better embodied the success of Hepworth's youthful political ideals than any other. Single Form was unveiled in New York in June 1964; later that summer Lanyon was killed, marking for many the end of St Ives as a centre for the production of modernist art.