I’m just back from a short break in St Ives, which I enjoyed not just for the beautiful town, beaches, food and company (of course) but also for the art inspiration.
St Ives is bursting with galleries with work from contemporary artists (which I might talk about another time) but on this trip I spent a bit of time learning about the artistic history of the place, which drew artists for its remoteness, wild landscape and light.
Tate St Ives
My first art history lesson was in Tate St Ives which holds a collection of paintings and sculpture from artists (many if whom have a connection with the town ) in the early twentieth century from figurative to abstract.
What struck me particularly was the very high proportion of female artists exhibited, this really stood out from collections in most galleries I’ve visited and was very refreshing.
There was art influenced by landscape and the sea as I had expected to see and as is still well represented in the town, alongside a large amount of figurative work and some interesting mythical, mystical pieces.
One of the artists who stood out for me in Tate St Ives was Dame Laura Knight.
Dame Laura Knight
Laura Knight’s paintings are vibrant and full of life, brilliantly executed and interesting in subject and format. She worked in Cornwall as a young woman, and is well-represented at Tate St Ives.
I have found myself drawn to her paintings before, when visiting the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago I saw her self portrait with models, a striking portrait of herself with some nude female models with confident red colour and an unusual composition that I have since found out she would have painted from life with a series of mirrors. It made me really feel her strength as a painter and a woman at a time when the painting would have been looked down upon by certain sections of the art world who may not have thought it ‘seemly’.
In the Tate, I particularly loved a painting of the Cornish coast with vivid green crashing waves and a portrait of a professional strong woman Joan Rhodes, looking classically beautiful and feminine where Knight might have portrayed her in a more masculine way.
I’ve been reading the exhibition catalogue from the Laura Knight portraits show at the National gallery in London in 2013 (ISBN 978-1-85514-463-7) and two things have reinforced how impressed I am with Knight’s work.
The first is her determination and work ethic. She painted prolifically and did not stop working in her quest to become a successful artist. Although she started training at a young age she had to set them aside to look after her sick mother and support the family by teaching when still a teenager. She painted from life and spoke of her great stamina at completing large portraits within a day. She adapted her style to suit the working conditions available to her and often painted in very difficult conditions to achieve the results she wanted. I was very inspired by her hard work and attitude that got her to where she wanted to be.
The second attribute that I loved about Laura Knight was that she was a people person and a teller of stories through paint. She didn’t just paint society people, but groups of people who interested her with different lifestyles to her own, dancers, clowns and gypsies and with whom she became friends. Portrait painters who respect their subjects paint so much more interesting paintings I think.
The Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden
Later in the week I visited the Barbara Hepworth museum and sculpture garden in St Ives town. We were very lucky to have a guided tour, I found it very interesting to hear about Barbara Hepworth and her work from someone who passionately loved it, I’m going to be honest and say that I’ve always found her sculpture quite hard to relate to, but now I understand it far better.
Barbara Hepworth was another prolific and dedicated artist who had to work extremely hard to be respected as a female sculptor. She was initially inspired to sculpt by her childhood memories of driving through the undulating hilly landscape with her father.
I hadn’t really thought or considered that process behind her sculpture and the meaning. I was interested in the concept of her pierced forms and how they brought background and light into the pieces, and her sculptures of form within form, because life often has life within It, like the kernel in a bit or a child in the womb.
She was physically strong, fearless and uncompromising in making art to her own vision. She enjoyed patronage from a lover of abstract art at a time when it wasn’t really popular in Britain, which allowed her to set up her studio and sculpture garden in St Ives.
What I took away from my trip was that artists need to be strong and fearless and work as hard as possible to get to where they want to be and am grateful to female artists who have blazed a trail to help female artists today.
I also have a new sense of how landscape art relates to the landscape and how abstraction can evoke emotion.
I am looking forward to my next short trip and hope it’ll be another art eye-opener!