Imagine a sleepy little coastal town in the 1950s taking centre stage in the art world, even to rival Paris, London and New York. Well St Ives in sunny Cornwall did just that. Following the two World Wars a group of artists took their lead from this revitalised decade of transformation by turning art on its head and propelling modern art into a new dimension through abstraction.
Still looking to Paris for inspiration from their artist contemporaries such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian, as well as New York in the guise of Jackson Pollock. These prolific artists too tuned into St Ives to see what these artists were creating. Forget for the moment Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – two major artists of significance for St Ives. Instead we look to five other well renowned artists, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost and Bryan Wynter.
I had heard of most of these artists before having studied Fine Art and being a big fan of St Ives (the light is as brilliant as everyone says). However I had never before seen the collective weight of all these artists put together so was very curious to see the new exhibition at Abbot Hall.
Firstly, you quickly become aware that each artist was experimenting and trying out ‘abstraction’ in many different ways. This is the beauty of this exhibition. Not one of them copied or tried to do exactly what each other was doing. Each artist had their own method. An individual process specific to them. All of them held a strong passion for the landscape, which drew them to St Ives in the first place but how they then turned this love into different modes of expression is a mystery. Except to say that fresh inspiration following a decade of turmoil, pain and liberation heralded a new start for artists and perhaps old traditions were more freely able to be set aside.
It’s clear that Patrick Heron, also a writer and critic, looked to New York for his direction. One of my favourite paintings in this exhibition clearly follows in the footsteps of the Colour Field painters. However ‘Horizontal Stripe Painting’ (Nov ’57 to Jan ’58) was also inspired by the explosive colour of camellias and azaleas in his garden at Eagles Nest in Cornwall.
Peter Lanyon was much more representational in his abstraction of the landscape particularly when looking at his series of ‘Weather Paintings’. Terry Frost on the other hand was a non-figurative painter who used colour to striking effect. His ‘Red, Black & White’ painting embodies the bleakness of the Yorkshire Dales where he spent some time. Bryan Wynter went even further by going to the roots of organic expression with a desire to tap into the unconsciousness with a frenzy of brushstrokes. The complete opposite to fellow artist, Roger Hilton, whose use of space and line looked to the rhythms and colours of the natural world.
These artist were true pioneers in the field of modern abstract art and Abbot Hall has brought a refreshing display of their work together but this has just whetted my appetite and made me even more determined to see more!
P.S. There is also another excellent smaller side-exhibition called ‘Beyond St Ives’ displaying Abbot Hall’s other key acquisitions from the same period showing how other painters such as leading American abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler, were influenced by developments taking place in the South West.
|Helen Frankenthaler’s ‘Sun Dial’ 1963|
|Love the one on the left by Henry Mundy (Birkenhead born!) ‘Tambour’|
|Going inside to the exhibition… alas I wasn’t allowed to take photos 🙁|
‘Taking Flight: St Ives in the 1950s’
Abbot Hall Art Gallery
On until 3rd October 2015