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A Realistic Manifesto at the Tate, St Ives

by Mary Fletcher

Naum Gabo Linear Construction in Space No 2

On the way in through Gallery One there is a beautiful golden coloured Gabo made of bronze, looking a bit too large for its corner, and apparently at one stage it was in the main show. It is simple – geometric metal formed into a curvilinear form, constructed using machinery to achieve a perfectly satisfying composition. Its presence in a room with Brian Wynter, Sandra Blow etc. claims him as one of our own in St Ives.
The entrance to the Gabo show, before the main gallery, holds a large female head made of planes of metal, feeling very oversized in the space. An additional small golden work sits high up in a corner, placed like an icon in a home (for those who can find it).
It’s a hundred years since Naum Gabo, after leaving Moscow to avoid being enlisted in World War I, returned to be an enthusiastic part of the early revolutionary excitement and was distributing his Realistic Manifesto in the streets of the city. One copy is in a display case with a translation below it, but I wonder why the show wasn’t constructed around these glorious sentences which carry the flavour of a time we can hardly imagine, when a unifying vision of better times had swept Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. Artists saw abstraction not as the chic accompaniment to a second home it may be today, but as a rejection of clichés and a leap forward to an art that sought something essential and meaningful that would affect the whole of society.

‘Today is the deed.
We will account for it tomorrow.
The past we are leaving behind as carrion.
The future we leave to fortune tellers.
We take the present day.’

Naum Gabo, Construction in Space: Two Cones 1936, replica 1968
Construction in Space: Two Cones 1936, replica 1968 Cellulose acetate

The exhibition is split in half by a curved grey hospital curtain, which even has instructions not to touch it inscribed on the floor, and I wondered why this was made such a dominating feature. I mentioned this to a woman who turned out to be Nina Williams, Gabo’s daughter, born in Carbis Bay in 1941. She said she was delighted with the whole display, but I would have preferred the curtain to be removed.
There are models for buildings, monuments, sculptures, mono prints, paintings, drawings and films, so you get a great idea of the wide scope of Gabo’s work. I loved the film of La Chatte ballet using dancers with circular and square frames wielded wittily. Gabo constructed work with new materials, aiming to work with space and kinetic possibilities.
The walls have been painted subtle green and dark turquoise and make an interesting change from the white austerity which has become routine for modernist galleries.
Gabo left Russia again. From my internet research, which I recommend as there are so many images of Gabo’s works available including film of him speaking, I find that he did not fit in with Tatlin and El Lissitsky’s views and was not admitted to the Central Soviet of Artists which would have guaranteed him paid work. Gabo chose to leave and was not to be allowed back until 1962. The tide was already turning from the early revolutionary embrace of pure abstraction and Gabo left for Germany. Later, as Anti-Semitism grew, he moved on to Paris and London, and arrived in St Ives where he stayed for seven years.
Here Gabo influenced Barbara Hepworth, but felt she stole his ideas, becoming a valued member of the in crowd. He left for America in 1946, where he found fame and fortune.
Gabo was the son of a wealthy industrialist who owned metal works, and the father’s money enabled Naum to travel and pursue art. He said he was converted to the revolution at the age of 15 on seeing Cossack brutality in putting down the early protests in Russia. He had been expelled from primary school for writing subversive poetry about the headmaster. He had not been admitted to St Petersberg Art School and remained self taught.
Nowadays it’s difficult to think of any artist rising to prominence without the required education and a string of official awards and residences – as evidenced by the other artist featured at Tate St Ives at the moment – Emily Speed.
So, ironically, the revolutionary Gabo who left Russia, perhaps because his dedication to his art outweighed his political fervour, succeeded because of his capitalist father’s funding and made his own residences, moving from country to country. His influence on international art and design was considerable.
I would have liked some context about the Russian artists with whom Gabo parted company, but these one-person shows are devoted to the idea of one genius, so comparisons with these and with Hepworth are left to the visitor to make for themselves.

Volume 34 no 5 May / June 2020

Naum Gabo at Tate St Ives (1890-1977)

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