To St Ives with my family, and a pilgrimage of sand, sea and Abstract Expressionism. As I daydream by the harbour, the light does seem somehow different. It’s hard to put into words, but art historian Michael Bird’s description of the strong un-English brilliance of its marine light helps. There are so many contrasts in this half-moon shaped bay. The queue for “award-winning” pasties snakes forever along the harbour wall, yet I stand alone in Barbara Hepworth’s studio, cooled by its pale cream walls and calmed by the soft light that seeps in through faded linen curtains.
The studio has been left exactly as it was at the height of Hepworth’s success and portraits of her at work in the small black and white photographs arranged on the mantelpiece make me appreciate what a crucible of creativity this room was. The smaller sculptures are as sensual as they are cerebral and I desperately want to run my hand over their smooth surfaces, but a polite notice requests “Please do not touch the artworks”.
Around the corner from her studio, the current exhibition at Tate St Ives thrills my eye too. Works by Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollack and Arshile Gorky hang alongside the group of British painters who, together with Barbara Hepworth made St Ives such an important ingredient in the process of taking art forwards following the Second World War. Photography continued to be a humble servant of art's established order after 1945 and its greatest impact was still through documentary and advertising. Photographers would have to wait four decades until the art world at last embraced their work as an art form in its own right. William Eggleston’s 1976 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is hailed as the moment when colour photography was finally accepted.
Revelling in Cornwall’s jewelled light and immersed still in the Tate’s abstracts keeps my mind buzzing along the M5 and within a day of returning north I head for Mima, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Unlike the Tate, there’s no admission fee and no croissants. Here I experience for the first time the remarkable work of Louise Bourgeois and find inspiration in her life story: she was making some of her most profound art in her nineties. Bourgeois didn’t rate photography too highly, although she did allow Robert Mapplethorpe to photograph her clasping a hugely suggestive sculpture.
Over a bacon roll in the café I glance through a lush arts magazine left for free on my table. Nearly every article is about photography and a feature on Robert Capa catches my eye, initially because all the images are in colour. Labelled “The Greatest War Photographer in the World”, Capa spent the majority of his career using black and white to portray humanity caught up in brutality. “Capa in Color”, an exhibition currently running at the International Center of Photography in New York, reveals another side to the Hungarian and his thoughtfully crafted square format photographs made in the early Fifties reflect a sense of peace and prosperity.
Capa’s upbeat photography of landscapes and French models was a brief respite from the day job. In 1954 he was killed when he stepped on a landmine during the First Indochina War. Reflecting on Capa’s momentous but short life, and managing to resist a set of commemorative Louise Bourgeois table mats in the Mima shop, I leave Middlesbrough with my mind still fizzing and go straight to the woods alongside the River Swale, my cultural and aesthetic batteries registering as fully charged as my camera.