The Summer 2013 exhibition at Tate St Ives offers a dialogue of Modernists spanning generations, writes Emily Booth
It’s a lilac day in St Ives. The daubed sunsets and fishing boats and lighthouses that fill the harbour galleries try to capture this quality of light. The Queen is wearing lilac too, smiling from the back of a Range Rover on her way to the Tate gallery, to see the plans for the Phase 2 building extension and to view the summer show. I’m pushing through the flags and the bunting with a two-year-old; the singing of schoolchildren in the Tate’s atrium travels high and sweet.
Later, in the cavern of a serious collectors’ gallery, Wilhelmina Barns-Grahams and Terry Frosts on the walls, canvases stacked in a side-room, the elderly lady behind the desk gives away a ticket. She’s dressed to the nines, hair piled in a bun, Aztec earrings swaying. She’s a St Ives institution and she was at the Tate earlier with the Queen. ‘Here,’ she says, ‘go to the opening night; it’s too much for me. Have a lovely time.’
So, it’s an unexpected treat to mingle with the Cornish art crowd on the last day of a holiday, to peer at heartfelt letters under glass and marvel at a 14-year-old Patrick Heron’s design for a silk scarf.
‘His genius, it just shines through, doesn’t it?’ a woman says to her friend. Not genius, not yet – rather, the beginnings of something remarkable.
Marlow Moss is a revelation. Who was this artist whose work caught the serious attention of Mondrian?
Marlow Moss is a revelation. Who was this artist whose work caught the serious attention of Mondrian? Here she is in a photograph, standing in the sun, hair shorn. She changed her name from Marjorie to Marlow around 1919. She is beginning to be recognised as one of Britain’s most important Constructivist artists. Her Composition colour blocks march boldly across canvas, their restricted palette emphasising the spaces in-between. Her sculpture is compelling: you want to hold Balanced Forms in Gunmetal on Cornish Granite to see if she can keep the balancing act going.
In 1955, a few years before her death, Moss wrote to artist Paule Vézelay (herself a former Marjorie): ‘In the near future I may combine my Cornish existence with Paris. To live alone isn’t either easy or making me feel intensely living. The desire to love and be loved makes all things beautiful.’
The Tate St Ives Summer 2013 exhibition makes much of ‘opening up conversations across generations of artists, addressing a number of shared themes’. This is not altogether convincing except in one instance: that of Linder and Barbara Hepworth. Linder has curated a room for both their work, and her collages of the female form, all scallops and swirls and period fashion, are a jazzy response to Hepworth’s showstoppers.
‘I was looking at the pierced form sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and suddenly they made sense,’ Linder writes. ‘I was studying Sikhism and found a phrase “Man vidh chanan vyakhya”, which seemed the spiritual equivalent of Hepworth’s approach: “man vidh” means to penetrate the mind like a pearl, to see through it, to glimpse the soul, and “chanan vyakhya” to see the light.’
As for Hepworth, the balance, the grace, the embodied energy: it’s all here.
As for Hepworth, the balance, the grace, the embodied energy: it’s all here. A standout piece is Curved Form (Trevalgan), positioned cleverly between two sheer white curtains. Behind it are views of the ocean, and here is the sinking sun, marvellously held in the middle of the sculpture for a few slow beats.
What Hepworth achieves with form, Heron achieves with colour. Rarely-seen textile works chart his interest in colour and space. The detailed stages are intriguing, building layers of pattern and hues: we see ink and pencil on paper, then ink and pencil on acetate, and finally a silkscreen print on rayon. The work is joyful, alive with mauve and lemon, lime, electric blue and soft pink.
There is much to see in this summer show, too much for one visit. Better to choose a few artists and focus. Gareth Jones responds to an Aubrey Beardsley illustration of a harlequin, taking the costume pattern of a black diamond to its satisfying limits. New York based-British artist Nick Relph explores contemporary processes of production and re-production with his colour-saturated video installation. RH Quaytman paints dark abstract visions onto silkscreened plywood panels. Allen Ruppersberg’s The Never Ending Book 2007 lets you dip into boxes of digitally copied images from his own library and create your own volume to take home. Fragments of poetry, frontispieces, potboiler heroines: who knows what you’ll end up with?
At the end of the visit, as the stragglers are ushered out of the exhibition and upwards to drinks on the balcony, there’s a bottleneck on the staircase. Framed through a porthole window, there’s that extraordinary sunset again. It’s magenta and lilac – Heron could have put it on a scarf. People are smiling at it, they’re soaking it up, and a teenager says something brave: ‘Look at that. All that stuff inside… it’s not as good as that.’ By the time she gets outside, the sun has gone and the night air is rising.
Summer 2013, Tate St Ives, Cornwall, until 29 September, £7.70 (£7 without donation) Concessions £4.95 (£4.50 without donation)