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The artists of St. Ives. Fashioning art out of 20th-century ambiguity

I am living in a distant part of England (Cornwall). This is far away from any of the places threatened by air attack,'' noted the Russian constructivist artist Naum Gabo in his diary on Sept. 15, 1939. Excerpts in English from Gabo's diary are just one of the intriguing documentary items to have emerged in the first serious attempt to analyze and survey what might be called the ``St. Ives phenomenon.''

An exhibition at the Tate Gallery (through April 14) shows paintings, sculpture, and pottery that a collection of outstanding St. Ives artists produced mainly between 1939 and 1964. The book-sized catalog is perhaps even more significant in its exploration of St. Ives art and artists.

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But why this particular fishing town on the Penwith Peninsula of West Cornwall proved so attractive is likely to remain a mystery.

The factors were multiple. The artists were not drawn together by a common style, although broadly speaking they were modernists.

Nor can the appeal of St. Ives be attributed precisely to the place's astonishing lucidity of light, or to the bony surrounding landscape, or to the feeling of exposure to history, storm, wind, and wave. Certainly the prettiness of steep narrow streets, conglomerated rooftops, and pebbly beaches was not the magnet that drew this new influx of artists.

Cheapness and remoteness under wartime conditions only partly explain what brought people like Adrian Stokes, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Gabo himself here. Each, in fact, persuaded the others to move to St. Ives. Nicholson had visited St. Ives some years previously with the painter Christopher Wood when they had discovered the primitive painter Alfred Wallis.

This ex-fisherman and rag-and-bone merchant made odd little memory pictures, on scraps of board, of St. Ives harbor and houses and boats. They act as a kind of prelude -- along with paintings by Wood and Nicholson inspired to a degree by the memory pictures -- and they hint at another reason for the attraction of St. Ives to sophisticated artists campaigning for some sort of recognition of modern art in Britain. These artists must have seen in Wallis a fairly total antithesis to the tired and stick-in-the-mud academics and conservatism of British art -- which, incidentally, was as rife in St. Ives as anywhere.

Wallis was completely untutored. And he took from his locale whatever fed the inner, intuitive life that he uncomplicatedly saw as the actual activity of art. He painted ``for company.'' He was much more concerned with what his mind remembered than with what his eye saw.

If there is anything that holds true for most of the noteworthy St. Ives artists -- and after Nicholson, Gabo, and Hepworth it is such figures as Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, and Peter Lanyon, as well as the potter Bernard Leach who predominate -- it is that in disparate ways they made art out of the typical 20th-century ambiguity of an inner perception only peripherally inspired by an objective, outside world. This is why it cannot be simply said that it was the Cornish landscape that drew them to St. Ives.

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Some artists -- Lanyon in particular -- seem to have made subjective art that was excitingly, profoundly born out of the landscape. Paradoxically, however, he developed an outlook as international as any of the modernists in St. Ives.

He looked toward New York and grew impatient eventually with the small world of both St. Ives and England. He was a good friend of the American painter Rothko, as was Heron, and it was this ``second generation'' at St. Ives who brought in a vigorous awareness that the center of modern art had shifted from Paris to New York in the 1950s.

Both catalog and exhibition demonstrate that St. Ives during this period must have been a stimulating place for British artists to live and work. Finally, it is clear that this loose-knit community of artists brought as much, or more, to the place they adopted as it gave to them. And they brought to each other encouragement, atmosphere, and stimulating differences.

Unusually, in the history of British art, St. Ives became a place where artists neither worked nor lived in remote isolation from each other. And yet geographically they could scarcely have come to a part of their country more out on a limb. This cozy remoteness might almost be a symbol of the peculiarly British way in which they adapted modernity to their own sensibilities -- making art both consciously local and insular, and yet on the cliff-edge of internationalism.

Here were artists aware of both the warm advantages and the stifling disadvantages of the ``provincial.'' Perhaps it is amazing how long they stayed in St. Ives, and how vital was the art they produced there.

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