Muddy Reviews: Naum Gabo, Tate St Ives
This large scale exhibition of 20th century influential visionary and sculptor Naum Gabo is a visual delight.
The first extensive exhibition of Naum Gabo’s sculptures, paintings, drawings and architectural designs to be held in the UK for over 30 years opens at the Tate St Ives on 25 Jan and of course yours truly found her way in for a sneaky-peek ahead of opening day this weekend to see what the fuss was about.
Er, Naum who?
Gabo was an influential 20th-century sculptor and theorist, born in Russia in 1890 and becoming a US citizen in 1950. During his lifetime he lived and worked in Berlin, Paris, the UK and the US as well as Russia, and his influence stretches across a number of artistic movements of the time including Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism and the Bauhaus.
Why the exhibition?
A hundred years ago Gabo and his artist brother Antoine Pevsner devised a set of pioneering artistic principles which they launched in Moscow in 1920 after they tricked the authorities into printing 5000 copies to plaster across the city. You can see Gabo’s personal copy of the Realistic Manifesto complete with finger jabbing wear and tear at the start of the exhibition (as well as a translation should you feel moved to read it). It declares that space and time are fundamental to life and art aimed at being one with the essence of the real must accept this basic premise.
The exhibition celebrates the key themes Gabo explored in his work based on the concept of playing with the definitions of time and space which included movement, kinetic waves, music, the gaps between things (negative space) and, in his architectural drawings and observations, how people can interact with space and buildings.
What’s his connection with St Ives?
The people Gabo worked with during his extensive career read like a who’s who of the art world in the 20th century. As a leading member of the European avent-garde, he moved to London from Paris in 1936, and spent six of his years in the UK living in Cornwall during the Second World War.
Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson invited Gabo to Cornwall where he lived and worked in Carbis Bay near to St Ives. The influence of the natural world of Cornwall can be seen in oil paintings he made during his time in Cornwall, and the work he did in Cornwall (albeit on a smaller scale than previously) was important to the development of modernism in the St Ives art scene.
Influence and similarity can be seen with some of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, as well as the constructions and paintings of St Ives artists John Wells (pictured below) and Peter Lanyon, who went on to form a softer version of Constructivism.
If you’ve only time for a quick squizz, don’t miss these
If you’ve only a short visit, whizz quickly through the main exhibitions until you reach Gallery 5, the light-filled but underground new extension of the Tate St Ives, which opened back in 2017. In previous exhibitions, this has been a bright white space but the new rendering for the Gabo exhibition sees it painted in deep moody shades of blue and green, as if to mimic the very darkest natural shades of light outside. Striking, and makes it almost unrecognisable as the same space.
You won’t want to miss the stand-out pieces which were the sculptures. Gabo captures movement, light and also solid mass in almost futuristic ways, working in metal, perspex and nylon, giving life and rhythm to concepts in a way that his paintings (largely forgettable) do not do.
You’ll immediately be drawn to the huge head (above) which dominates the entryway, constructed from industrial materials, scaled up from a card model and using Gabo’s ‘stereometric’ method of open construction to capture chambers of space and shadow between planes. The idea behind the method was to show how ‘volume can be achieved without using solid mass’ and the overall effect is as if a Picasso painting was rendered in 3D rusted steel.
“I started to feel that space is not around us, space is in us, that we are all, and everything all around us is, transparent,” said Gabo, and this construction (below) of nylon threads over a transparent structure and suspended from the ceiling is ethereal and compelling.
In the entranceway to the room is another work (top) which when you activate the button, vibrates a slender metal rod at high speed causing a wave-like effect, and this piece looks to have caught the same kind of shape – and, I thought, like both the waves on the beach outside and also more than a passing similarity to some of the shapes of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures in the garden of her workshop just up the hill.
In the far corner, have a look at how the curators took Gabo’s fascination for space, time and technology and wondered what he might have done faced with wifi, projectors and digital life in general. Gabo died in 1977 so we will of course never know what direction his work would have taken, but based on his embracing of harnessing advances in technology during his lifetime, they brought Gabo into the 21st century.
Using an x-box connect, stand in front of the projection (created with a 3D scan of one of his sculptures) and use your own arm to make the rendering of the Bronze Spheric Theme spin and zoom.
As ever, the Tate St Ives does kids’ activities fantastically well, and I know this because my daughter has declared she wants to run the kids’ programmes when she is grown up.
From 15 – 23 February the Tate Create programme will be running a Toy Circus where kids are challenged to make their own toys from the bits and pieces found in the Naum Gabo inspired Studio workshop.
If you manage to go with two adults, the workshop makes a great place to take it in turns to park and hang out with the kids, who are nicely occupied, while the other does a turn round the exhibition in peace.
That said, take the kids in with you! There’s plenty for them to look and be inspired by, including videos to watch. and for the littlest ones, an eye-spy map where they can look carefully at the parts of the work and then locate them round the room.
Free entry for members and with locals passes. Tickets £9.50 or £13 with joint Hepworth pass. Various discounts apply, under 18s free.