A new exhibition at mima is offering the first major rethinking of the Tate St Ives Gallery art in almost three decades.
Important works by artists Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron are now on display alongside those of their international contemporaries and influences in International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915-65, which has been developed in collaboration with the Cornwall gallery, and curated to coincide with its 21st anniversary.
The display explores the wider national and international contexts that shaped art in St Ives and brings together significant loans from public and private collections in the UK and abroad.
These include works held by Tate and mima of artists from across Europe and North America – from Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Wassily Kandinsky through to Sam Francis, Sandra Blow, Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis and Mark Rothko.
For the uninitiated, St Ives was an artistic centre of international importance.
The group of artists who lived and worked in this fishing port and town on the far south west coast of Britain generally have their work viewed in terms of their location and use of landscape and nature.
This exhibition sets out to view the art of St Ives from the other end of the telescope, to place it not in relation to where it was made but in relation to what was made, how it was made, and its position in a wider international modern art world.
This touring exhibition shows how the art of post-war St Ives was developed from two strands of modern art: the utopian ideals of constructivism that spread from Moscow in the 1910s through Berlin and Paris, between the wars; and a tradition of craft and the handmade that unites the carvings of Brancusi and the ceramics of Bernard Leach and others.
“We are extremely excited to bring such a prestigious exhibition to mima,” says Grainne Sweeney, mima’s associate curator.
“It’s really fitting that a collection of work showcasing the arts and crafts should come to Middlesbrough, a town renowned for its craft and ceramic heritage.”
An illustrated book, Modern Art and St Ives, published by Tate, accompanies the exhibition.
Paul Denison, principal lecturer, design history in Teesside University’s School of Arts and Media, is one of a small group of experts who contributed an essay in it, which focuses on the work of Bernard Leach, studio potter and founder of the Leach Pottery in Cornwall.
Leach worked and studied in Japan and in China in his early career, before returning to the UK in 1920 and gradually establishing the internationally famous pottery in St Ives. He was strongly driven by the idea of artistic perfection, and influenced by artists in Japan and China.
He was also driven by the need to make money, by the market opportunities created by tourism in St Ives, and by the growing possibilities that electricity and machinery created for the manufacture of ceramics.
The usefulness of ceramics – of pots and bowls, jugs and dishes – meant ceramics could be widely bought and sold. The Leach Pottery produced work – both domestic and studio pots - throughout the Second World War and for many years afterwards and it continues to inspire the design and creation of ceramics in Cornwall.
The exhibition places the work of Bernard Leach alongside influential St Ives artists, including Patrick Heron, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, but also alongside the work of contemporary European and American artists. It encourages visitors to consider the work in an international context, instead of a national one.