Monday, 27 November 2017

But Is It Art?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I visited the Tate St Ives. The gallery has recently re-opened after a four year programme to extend the site. The whole building had been closed for about 18 months while work was in progress, and I was really keen to see the finished space. If you'd like to read a little more about it, I've included a link here. I also wanted to purchase my Locals Pass, that allows free entry for the year. I'm not sure how many have been issued, but I think it's one of many attempts by the Tate to interact with the local community, and encourage them to visit and enjoy the space and exhibitions on offer.

The general feeling surrounding the Tate here in St Ives, is one of dislike and distrust. It is seen as elitist and up itself. The artwork contained within, is not 'proper' art. It's there solely for the entertainment of the tourists. It's aloof and distant. It's a blot on the landscape. Only last week, the letters section of our esteemed local, The Times & Echo, included two epistles attacking it. One doubting how much the town's economy depended on it, the other mocking the art within. 

Of course, the real gripe behind the letters, to my mind at least, has more to do with the uneasy alliance of local and visitor than any real dislike of the building and what lies beyond. It was wholly snubbed by a good deal of the town when it first opened its' doors, and many - including my in laws - complained that it wasn't intended for the likes of them. It was seen as an unnecessary addition to the town, and a waste of time and money.

Tate St Ives was conceived in part to showcase the rich artistic heritage of the town. As many of you know, artists have always been drawn to the area, because of the landscape and the light. It was an escape and a refuge for artists fleeing tyranny abroad during the 1930s. Nuam Gabo and Piet Mondrian both lived here for a time. It became a vibrant hub of artists working in close quarters and sharing ideas and influence. Painters, sculptors, potters, writers, composers and poets have all been inspired by their visits and stays in St Ives. It continues to inspire; indeed it inspires me everyday. I have millions of photos that illustrate it. I have journals that wax lyrical about the place. I have this blog. I have stories and poems in little notebooks, that attest to it's grip on my thoughts and feelings. My Instagram account is full of it.

There is still a vibrant artistic community here. There are several galleries, artists studios, classes, workshops and craft stores dotted all over town. There are authors and poets who live among us, or who frequently visit to get their hit of inspiration. We have a festival every September, that show cases art, poetry and music. There's a lot going on. Last summer term, Olly's year group were invited by the Leach Pottery to visit. Olly was full of the potters wheel and the amazing structures created on it. The Leach then visited his school, and made plaques with the children. Olly's has pride of place next to my own Leach pot. It has a pasty, two shells and a starfish embossed on it, and he couldn't have been prouder when he brought it home.

I absolutely adore the Tate. Just seeing it as I pass on my way to work, or while walking the dog on the beach makes me smile. It is a beautiful building, that echoes the landscape in which it sits perfectly. It is a sculptural shape, not unlike those that Barbara Hepworth created in her studio here in the town. It's not imposing, and indeed the extension is mostly built into the rock, so does not overwhelm the beach beyond. I think it is beautiful.

But what it contains within hat really takes my breath away. If you aren't a fan of modern art, then I guess it isn't the place for you. But should you ever visit St Ives, I would love for you to take a peek inside. The entrance fee is reasonable, the shop is great, the café serves a great coffee and has fantastic views. But the art. Oh my goodness the art! Heron, Lanyon, Hepworth, Wallis, Nicholson, Guabo, Rothko, Picasso, Mondrian, Frost and Hilton are all there. Huge, bold canvasses and intimate works. Sculptures that make you want to reach out to touch and caress. Art that mystifies and poses questions. Shape, form and colour that calms the soul or uplifts the mind. Pieces that challenge our concepts and ideals. Stuff that makes you take a step back in wonder. It's all there.

My favourite? Possibly the painting by Peter Lanyon in the first photograph above. It's called 'Porth Leven', and indeed tracks the fishing village from one end to the other as if one is looking down upon it and along it's length at the same time. But there's also another picture hidden within; a fisherman and his wife. He has a lamp, she is wearing a shawl. Can you see them? I remember seeing this painting when I was pregnant with Alfie. I just stood in front of it, and stared at it for the longest time. I fell in love with the shapes and the movement created on the canvas. I just enjoyed the perspective and story told within.

Of course, for some it's a load of old rubbish. It hardly compares to a Constable, for example. And they're probably right, if what you want from a painting is realism, fine artistic skill and all the rest. But this painting just pulls me in. It has a quality about it that is just out of reach of my abilities to describe. It's not a intellectual thing. It's a feeling thing. And that's the best way I can describe it; it makes me feel. I'll be honest and say that I don't have too much truck with some of the nonsense that is written on those little blurbs beside the paintings. Apart from any factual detail. I can see why one would be put off; they are a bit pompous and don't speak my language at all. But get past that bit, and you enter a magical world. And so I find the art itself very inclusive. I can make of it what I want. I enjoy some paintings for their colours alone. I enjoy the composition of others. Some leave me cold.  But some transport.

I think I am very lucky to live in a town that showcases some of the most exciting British art of the past one hundred years. And that also sticks it's neck out once in a while to show off the wall pieces too. St Ives so far away from everything and everywhere, and it can sometimes feel as if it is in isolation from the rest of the UK, and indeed the world. So something as fab as the Tate gives me a connection to it all. Some of the upcoming exhibitions include a Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury Group retrospective and also Patrick Heron's huge canvasses. I am very excited about both.

I feel privileged to walk the same cobbled streets that many of the artists that exhibit here. I stare at the same views, picking up and turning over similar pebbles and shells. I can stand on Rosewall and look down on the town, cupping it in my hands and tracing the curve of the earth. all the while knowing that Ms Hepworth did too. I'm constantly staggered by the clarity of light, and the clear sharp quality of the land, the sea and the sky. It's like a sharp intake of breath on a frosty morning.

Tell me, what do you think about twentieth century art? Does it leave you cold, or does it inspire? I'd be really interested to know your thoughts.

Leanne xx

I should also add that I've become aware that my commenting on your lovely blog posts don't seem to be registering. I've no idea why, and I was most upset when I realised. I hope that you don't feel ignored or unread by myself. I think I've sorted the problem, but please know that I love each and every one of you and your posts, and all of your support and commentary of my space here. xxx


  1. What an amazing blog post this is - an essay fit for higher education - I am only sorry Leanne that I don't have time right now to respond fully - but I will, I will. I am a member of the Tate, which means I can go into any Tate exhibition around the country, but admit I rarely get down to St Ives - which is my bad. I do, as I've mentioned before have family in Cornwall so I have no excuses really. But I'm going to see Modigliani at the Tate Modern this week, so my card will get used this month! To think that I had never been to an art gallery until I was 40 so I've certainly made up for it since then. I've been to art galleries all over the world now. I remember seeing Antony Gormley's Field for the British Isles at St Ives - AMAZING!!!!!!

    I'm now married to an artist and spent my working life enabling young children in the pursuit of all things arty - and consider myself to be creative too in my own way. Yes, Leanne, we have lots to talk about. I have said before, you have a great life in a beautiful part of the world. I am so glad you appreciate it. Art adds to our experience and can never be a bad thing. Keep enjoying life beyond the scrubs...... Mary

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  3. Oh - to answer your question I LOVE the Lanyon!

  4. Of course it's art, not every piece of art is meant to appeal to everyone, it's subjective. I'm not a huge fan not modern art, though its vibrant colors often draw me in and make me look for more depth. I lost my heart to Impressionist painting long ago and find myself looking at all painting with t h at eye. I find most wring about art a bit of pretentious twaddle, but that's ok, it's the art that counts.
    Loved your post and the passion you feel.

  5. What an interesting post. I would love to visit St. Ives at some point and the gallery would definitely be on my 'to do' list. I like art to be something that I know I couldn't do myself - all of the paintings above would qualify. We visited an exhibition in London a few years ago that combined hilarity and annoyance in equal measures - some of the 'art' looked as though it was junk modelling done by nursery children. There was a screwed up tissue next to a shampoo bottle painted pink, a scribble on the wall and a pile of sticks of chewing gum, to name a few. The cards next to them trying to justify these pieces made my blood boil and at one point we came across a photocopier in a corner - I still couldn't tell you if it was one of the exhibits or not! Many times though, I have stood in front of a painting with tears in my eyes, just because, as you said, it makes me feel. The same painting could leave R cold. Each to their own, I suppose. Anyway, I envy you your beautiful gallery - just another gem in your gorgeous part of the country. xx

  6. I have been disappointed by Tate St Ives on 2 occasions now, firstly when it was closed for hanging, which I understand won't happen now they have more space, and secondly when it was open when I visited that there was not more art on display from local artists. I hope that they will have more work by Hepworth, Mondrian etc on display now as I think that would be more fitting. Hope you enjoy the upcoming exhibitions, I will be interested to hear about them from you. p.s. as for modern art, like all art, it depends, some I like some I don't! I love Hepworth's sculptures though.

  7. I love modern art, but like you, not all of it. Damien Hirst has a similarly uneasy relationship with Ilfracombe I think. He has done so much for the town, which at times seems spectacularly ungrateful. I've been to Tate Modern, but not the St Ives Tate, but I'd love to one day. I remember visiting St Ives about 20 years ago and loving the artistic feel to the place. I haven't felt it so much in recent visits, but back then, before children, exploring the old streets, looking at the art galleries, on clear sunny days when the light was incredible I could really feel the draw of the place for artists. Love the Porth Leven painting, and it has reminded me of a very good cup of tea I had there with a blogging friend once. CJ xx

  8. I used to be very grumpy about modern art and dismissive of it. Now I have time for it, bits of it at least. Some of the paintings you’ve photographed look fascinating. I agree about emotional contact with paintings- that’s how they get me. On balance I’d say how wonderful to have such a place on your doorstep. Xx

  9. great post, agree with all your points. Thank you for the blog, always enjoy the posts.

  10. I love modern art a lot but in a rather random and uneducated way (the way I like wine). I really enjoy abstract paintings where I can let my imagination run free. I guess the appreciation of modern art needs a different mindset than for example the appreciation of a more traditional rendition of an object or scenery. Imagination helps I think. You are so lucky to have the Tate in St Yves and I promise, one day I will pay it a visit. Loved this post Leanne xx

  11. The appreciation of any art is, of course, subjective. Whether it's modern or an old master, it can leave you cold or it can grab you by the heart. If it catches my eye and causes an emotional reaction (a good one!) then I'll love it. I remember standing in front of David Hockney's seasons paintings (trees in Woldgate) for the first time and suddenly I had tears pouring from my eyes – a completely unexpected reaction. I think it was the colours. I'm not sure where the sort of inverted snobbery of being 'against' an art gallery comes from. That's a shame. It must be marvellous to have all that art on your doorstep and to be able to pop in when you have time. What a privilege. It's an absolute pleasure to read about your love of your home town. Thank you for sharing it here. Sam x

  12. I love any art - my OH and I both went to Art College and we appreciate many different types of artwork even if we wouldn't actually want to bring it home. I often find that some of the best art lies in the sketchbooks/notebooks of college students rather than finished pieces in Art Galleries - they can be quite inspiring.
    Places like the Tate become talking points and objects of love and hate for the buildings alone as well as what they contain. If you remember the Eiffel Tower was intensley disliked when it was built - now people visit to get engaged or have a selfie - it is a much loved attraction and I wonder what people would say now if it was suddenly to be knocked down.
    For some reason people feel more threatened by modern art - I think perhaps because they feel they need to understand a painting and it has to have a point. It is possible however, to just to enjoy a painting for its colour or the way it can make you feel.

  13. I LOVED the Tate when I visited in 2014, and thought it was particularly child friendly which impressed me. It's interesting though how much the town's relationship with the gallery echoes it's uneasy relationship with tourists. I've never lived somewhere so beautiful or full of tourists . I'm not sure if it's a blessing or a curse! X