Dark Monarch Magic and Modernity in British Art
Tate St Ives until January 10 2010
It is unusual for a gallery as prestigious as the Tate to admit magic, but safely down in St Ives where the trees grow clawed right-angled by the ferocity of the wind, where the sea is churned jade, where the interior light pours from the granite with the clarity of mescaline, they cannot keep it out. The great bowed windows over Porthmeor let it all in.
But this exhibition reveals that they simply do not know what to do with it.
The exhibition lifts its title from the novel by Sven Berlin, which libelled the entire local artistic community with a flourish, and lead to his exile from the West, chasing the gypsies and leaving the sterile Hepworth set behind. And there is magic in the way his hands set to sculpt the hard granite, romance in how he lived. Yet in seeking a local justification, there is no true engagement with magic itself, it is seen as something peripheral to art when the two are inseparable.
Damien Hirst has his product placed in the entrance hall, The Child’s Dream, a unicorn in formaldehyde. This is the worst kind of shorthand, and a brazen attempt to make the exhibition seem relevant. The Brit-Artists show the loss of connection with magic, the craft of brand manufacturing over the exploration of the interior worlds, or the connection with external entities. This is the artist as marketeer, and art as a commercial. It may be what our culture deserves, but it is the antithesis of the path of the magical artist.
The show continues with bleak landscapes of rock, moor and jutting stones. Though they capture the raw elemental energy of Cornwall rather than the jostling harbours favoured by tourist daubers, can we consider this magic? The unspoilt Cornwall of the dark half of the year is worth being exposed to. That the spirits are more present when the walk to Men an Tol is done on sodden soil, or the Seven Sisters encountered in horizontal rain is undeniable. More magic art would be produced if magicians spent time in these elements, worked on landscapes and drawing from life.
Yet there are magicians exhibited. Austin Osman Spare, so over-exposed in the magical subculture, seems welcome here. Spare sits beside Ithell Colquhoun’s library, which does allow us a glimpse of what she was able to collect and distil through her Golden Dawn colour scales: an intriguing mix of texts on the devil, Kenneth Grant, Crowley, surrealism et al. Ithell deserves a room of her own where the repetition of her studies and an explanation of her occult colour theory could be placed. Ithell and AOS are described in the catalogue as having a ‘strong personal interest in mysticism and the occult’, this is simply insulting. By downplaying the fact that Spare was a sorcerer and that Ithell was a magician, the exhibition avoids confronting the magic which speaks in their work. Magic is not simply some bohemian toy, or a metaphor for the horror of the world wars, or a sense of general unease. As for the primitive colour riot of Crowley, or better, the skills of Frieda Harris, they are clearly missing. Despite the limitations of Crowley as an artist, he does have a strong local connection which the Tregerthen Horror by Paul Newman explores. Steffi Grant as an important connecting figure and artist in her own right should be included if this was to be considered a serious attempt at the subject.
There is little to recommend most of the modern exemplars who are exhibited. They are tangential at best. But who can we array against them? Derek Jarman makes a flickering appearance on a wall, Genesis P-Orridge gets as far as the exhibition catalogue. Yet where are the living British occult artists whose work is fit to display in a gallery?
Tate St Ives site