Barbara Hepworth, “Study for Lisa (Hands to Face)” (1949), pencil and oil on board, 59.5 x 40.7 cm (© Bowness, all images courtesy Barber Institute of Fine Arts)

BIRMINGHAM, England — Cornwall, that gnarled old boot of land, which kicks violently out Atlanticward from the southwest corner of England, has long been a tremendous allure for artists and writers seeking to imbibe something of the wildness of its coast or the intoxicating spirit of its general remoteness from any standards of gentility proposed by those laughably know-all metropolitan know-nothings.

After the railways thrust westward in the later 19th century, artists formed a colony there. An art school came into being. In 1928, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood took a trip down to the coastal town of St Ives, and found themselves gawping at paintings of boats tilted on their sides, executed with a rudely commanding vigor on bits of scrap wood, and then tacked to a door by an old fisherman called Alfred Wallace.

By the later 1930s artists kept on coming and coming, unstoppable as the waves, and for a wider variety of reasons. Edinburgh-trained painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham thought it could improve her delicate health. Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, his wife at the time, settled there with their triplets because they wanted to escape the horrors about to be suffered by so many in the capital: being bombed into homelessness. Painter Margaret Mellis pitched up with her husband Adrian Stokes, a nigh on perfect art critic of an Englishman who also dabbled in psychotherapy within the elegantly straitening confines of a Harris Tweed jacket.

Ben Nicholson, “Three Mugs and a Bowl” (1928), linocut on paper, 59 x 53 cm (Jerwood Collection © Angela Verren Taunt; All Rights Reserved DACS 2020)

And then there arrived a man with a dog, via places so distant and so far flung — Revolutionary Russia, Berlin, and Paris, for example — that he struck them as something of a marvel of an internationalist. This was Naum Gabo, Constructivist. Mellis found him utterly mesmerizing, as she once told an interviewer:

He was very nice […] everybody liked him and he had a frightfully nice Russian accent and […] he was […] very helpful if he ever happened to say anything or if he liked your things he said very good things and actually he had a sort of pervasive presence […] he didn’t seem to be doing any work, in fact he seemed to do nothing at all really except eat yoghurt and go for walks [on the cliff top, with dog, briskly], but his ideas seemed to come out and sort of influence people although he wasn’t doing anything or didn’t seem to be doing anything […].

Not doing anything, Margaret! The premise of Cornwall as Crucible: Modernity and Internationalism in Mid-Century Britain, staged at the Barber Institute on the campus of the University of Birmingham — a delightful late-‘30s flourish of Art Deco created by a prolific builder of finely turned cinemas — is that, contrary to what Margaret Mellis may have thought she thought in that interview recorded more than 50 years after she had actually witnessed Gabo’s habits in St Ives, he in fact did a great deal, and his influence upon the artists among whom he and his dog moved over the seven years that he lived there, and for decades after, was in fact enormous.

Naum Gabo, “Linear Construction in Space No.1” (1942/43), Perspex, with nylon monofilament

Gabo brought various modern attitudes with him towards the making of art, and more than a bit of the idealistic fervor that we tend to associate with Russian artists who were alive in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Alive just then, perhaps, but not for long after. Unless, like Gabo, they got out.

The show pivots about “Linear Construction in Space No. 1” (1942-3), a single, relatively small sculpture by Gabo that he made, and then went on re-making in various sizes. It stands centrally, on a plinth, close to the entrance of the gallery. Seventeen different versions of this work exist. One is at Tate in London, and another in the Guggenheim, New York.

The one we see here, which may be the smallest, was fabricated, in part at least, in his own domestic oven in St Ives, and it was fashioned from a new material: perspex, better known in the US as plexiglass. Paintings around the walls by the likes of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Margaret Mellis and others, seem to be dancing in attendance, nodding in acknowledgment of its importance.

“Linear Construction” is a wonderfully delicate piece of work. It is small, light, transparent and boxy, and it contains within it a leaf shape which seems to have been carved out of the very air that we breathe, the very space that we all occupy.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, “Winter Landscape 1952” (1952), oil and pencil on board, 31.8 x 33.7 cm (Jerwood Collection, © Wilhelmina Bams-Graham Trust)

The outer limits of the leaf, a shape so full of its own absence, are defined by taut lengths of string, which flow out and away in parallel lines. The structure feels a little like an airy instrument ripe for the plucking. Perspex was a new material in 1942, and this suited Gabo very well.

He had brought with him from Russia a burning idealism about the new art, and what it could do for society. He foresaw industry, culture, and science dancing together in praise and support of the collective endeavors of a newly culture-awakened humanity. Ah, the fragile breath of idealism!

The paintings around the walls seem to invite us to consider quite how pervasive (in Margaret’s good word) Gabo’s works might have been on other artists, some native, others those westward-lusting émigrés. Somewhat, is the answer.

One artist who may have been influenced a great deal is of particular interest. Gabo stayed in St Ives for seven years, and then left for America. Why did he leave?

Peter Lanyon, “Sharp Grass” (1964), gouache on paper, 101 x 83 cm (Jerwood Collection © Sheila Lanyou, All Rights Reserved DACS 2020)

The single work closest to Gabo’s on these walls is a painting by Barbara Hepworth, made many years later, called “Oval Form with String” (1960), which uses string-like circlings of parallel lines to define the nature of spatial depth. Who thought of string first? Both used it a lot.

Again, Margaret Mellis might just help us. Elsewhere in that interview already cited, she tells of how Hepworth copied – no, stole – an idea from Gabo, and how outraged he was by that theft. The two of them were to have separate exhibitions, and when Gabo discovered that Barbara’s work was to be exhibited first, he pulled out. The friendship ended. Then he left for America.

Is what Margaret says true? Did Gabo leave St Ives because Hepworth had brazenly stolen his idea? Or is it all too long ago, and the notion far too over-simplistic, and interviews with aging artists 50 years after the event too unreliable, for anyone to know for sure? Tantalizing all the same.

Cornwall as Crucible: Modernity and Internationalism in Mid-Century Britain continues at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts (University of Birmingham, Birmingham, England) through May 17.

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...