25 March 2023

A brief trip to St Ives, Cornwall

 Art & Life

A feeling of being lost in pursuit of something

My room is low on the last building above the rocks, at Pedn Olva

I wanted (needed?) a break. Having had a chest infection on top of a relatively miserable winter, I just wanted a brief change of scene. Self-indulgent? Tick. Extravagant? Tick. Crazy? Tick.....

It is close to twelve hours by public transport (one bus, one tube and four trains) from my home to St Ives, Cornwall, and I was only going for two nights, so practically only had one whole day in St Ives.....  Why?

Well, this was one reason (which I'll come back to):

I had been to St Ives at least once before, though it was so long ago it looked a bit like this:

Has it changed? No, Not a lot:

St Ives has a population of about 11,000, not counting visitors, and had about the same number of inhabitants when Angela and Frank were born here:

Though over time there has been a considerable change in the make up of that population. Tourism occupies the majority of working people, though there is still a fishing fleet:

But there is hardly anywhere to park - the narrow twisted streets are quaint, but no good for the family car. You can rent a wind- and seaspray-swept parking space for about £1,000 a year, but you can't park outside your home:

And you can see the changes in local facilities, from traditional cinema:

To modern Art Gallery:

So, inevitably, young families have moved away, and older, richer, retired people have settled in, walking their dogs and enjoying the ultra-violet, then, possibly, letting their home for the summer while they go somewhere quieter.....

It's a charming, higgled-piggledy place, winding, almost coiling like ropes, up and over:

From the harbour to the beach - one sheltered from the elements:

The other wide open to the rolling surf:

And it was to this corner of paradise that Barbara Hepworth happened in 1939. And where she stayed until her death in 1975.

I have come to see Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, an exhibition at the Tate St Ives, as well as to visit Trewyn Studio, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

I am not alone.  Although it is term time and early Spring, the town is surprisingly busy, with young couples walking their dog:

And individuals (walking their dog):

But also with school parties, busily sketching and noting and giggling, exploring the intricacies of abstract sculpture:

What they see in it, I can't tell, as I am not sure what I am seeing either, but I think I may begin to understand something when I read about her:

Hepworth was one of few women artists to gain international recognition in an era when the practice of making sculpture was dominated by men. Her abstract works often explore ideas of a universal human experience, such as the figure in the landscape. 

Hepworth was profoundly influenced by the natural environment. 

The guide to the exhibition take us through the various stages of her creative life, but begins with a quotation from her from 1970:

The forms which have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); 

the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); 

and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) which translates for me the association of meaning of gesture in landscape; in the repose of say a mother & child, or the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit.

In all this, both in the Tate and in her home, I am teased to wonder.  A thought occurs to me:  It is not possible to imagine a world without 'art,' for the very process of imagination is an artistic act.  From the time when someone depicted wild beasts in two dimensions on a cave wall, to the furthest future of mankind, we are doomed to imagine things that are not there or which are not what they seem to be.  And this is art.

Quite how you assess or justify such work is another matter. I think that many might say that a likeness of someone or something is preferable to an abstraction, and a good likeness (a recognisable likeness) is better than a crude similarity.  

But ultimately that doesn't matter. 

Here we see an image of Barbara Hepworth at the United Nations Plaza in New York:

She is formally addressing an audience at the unveiling ceremony of her 6.4 metre tall Single Form 1961-4, which she created as a memorial to her friend Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, following his death in a plane crash in 1961. In her address Hepworth said: I have tried to perfect a symbol that would reflect the nobility of [Dag Hammarskjöld's] life, and at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.

I can relate to that.....

Back in my hotel, I reflect on Life & Art, wondering which is which.

The sea ebbs and flows through the night and splashes against the rocks below my window.  In the morning I wake to that sound, and see the sun shining across the burnished sea.  

Art and Life become one, for a moment.  

I feel at peace.

Barbara Hepworth remains one of Britain's most celebrated modern sculptors. Her monumental works can be seen in prominent public spaces in St Ives, London and New York as well as in public and private collections around the world.

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