A place in the sun

How did a fishing village become an avant-garde haven?

Many artists we now label "modern" in fact reacted against the forces of modernity that led during the first half of the 20th century to two world wars, political and social unrest and spiritual disillusionment. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, along with the psychoanalytically inclined critic Adrian Stokes and his wife, the artist Margaret Mellis, sought refuge in St Ives, Cornwall.

Leaving the "centre" for the periphery was nothing new. Attracted by the seaside town's superb light, Whistler and Walter Sickert had made the long journey west to St Ives in the winter of 1883-84. Gauguin had gone to Brittany to paint peasants, believing they exemplified a sort of spiritual purity in contrast to the urban. The end of the 19th century had brought the rise of utopian communities such as the French Barbizon school, which painted en plein air, and the Worpswede group on the north German moors. These far-flung locations provided artists with a kind of primitive essence, a sense of timeless authenticity amid great social and political change.

With connections to Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Jean Arp, Nicholson's and Hepworth's studio in Hampstead had already become part of the avant-garde European art scene. It was a magnet for growing numbers of British and European artists, many of them cultural émigrés fleeing the political chaos sweeping Europe. These included the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian and the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, who followed Nicholson and Hepworth to Cornwall. The sense of displacement brought about by the war had a profound effect on a generation of British artists.

The centre of the art world was already shifting from Paris to New York. The utopian vision of art as a form of spiritual renewal and social advancement, which had been the ideal of many modernists before the war, became less sustainable in its aftermath. Fresh tensions arose between reality and imagination, figuration and abstraction, elements of narrative and formalistic purity. A new exhibition, sourced from the Tate's collection, explores the shared visual language of artists working in Europe and America from the 1930s to the late 1970s. Far from being a parochial corner of the British Isles where artists simply sought shelter from the Blitz, St Ives became pivotal in the development of modern art - a hothouse of ideas from both the New World and old Europe.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: object, gesture and grid. The first section highlights the connections between artists such as Hepworth and Brancusi, Braque and Picasso. Here, the painted image is no longer presented simply as a window on the world, but rather, in the case of Nicholson's "constructed" and painted boards, as an object. The biomorphic, sexualised forms of Hepworth draw heavily on the psychoanalytic imagery of surrealism, while the fragmented still lifes of Braque and Margaret Mellis's driftwood assemblages show the influence of cubism.

“Gesture" considers the materiality and expressionist possibilities of paint, linking European movements such as tachism and art informel with American abstract expressionism. Many of the St Ives artists had connections
and friendships with the Americans. These dialogues are highlighted in paintings by Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Sandra Blow, which are shown next to works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

“Grid" takes a more austere, geometric path, in contrast to the gestural mark. A sign of rational thinking, harmony and space, the grid represented a universal - as opposed to personal - language. For modernists seeking a new form of expression after the First World War, it became synonymous with their egalitarian social, political and philosophical agendas. In works by Josef Albers, Donald Judd, Robert Ryman, Mary Martin and Eva Hesse, the viewer is drawn both psychologically and physically into the artwork.

So what has been the importance of St Ives? The concentration of artists' studios there and the gathering of international art-world figures, leading to the arrival of the Tate in 1993, have generated aesthetic debates and produced new work that have given a very distinct flavour to British modernism.

Until 26 September. Details: tate.org.uk/stives

Sue Hubbard's "Adventures in Art: Selected Writings 1990-2010" (Other Criteria, £25) is out now