On show from 15 September until 24 November 2012 is a major new exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by the legendary artist Sven Berlin (1911 – 1999). An influential and charismatic figure in the history of the St. Ives Art Colony, his reputation still resonates in its streets. This retrospective, drawn from public and private collections throughout the UK and including many rarely-seen works, brings together the many phases of Berlin’s life and work in the largest and most representative show ever to be staged.
A resolutely figurative and – as he proudly proclaimed – romantic artist, Berlin was ostracised by the Modernist movement and on leaving St. Ives in 1953, found himself facing relative obscurity, his book The Dark Monarch, a ‘roman Ã clef’ of the art colony in the 1940s, compounding the state of affairs. Yet his commitment to his work never faltered, and he was still sculpting, drawing, painting and writing until days before his death in December 1999.
His early artistic career was encouraged by a brief spell at Beckenham Art School under the guidance of Henry Carr R.A. and later of Dr Frank Turk, the adult educationalist. Berlin used his youthful experiences as an adagio dancer in the music halls to explore form, at the same time producing stylish posters for their shows across the country and characterful gouache drawings of the stars of the day. Pen and inks, pencil drawings and oils of that time and from 1938 onwards in Cornwall, are a testament to Berlin’s dedication and reveal his skilled and perceptive draughtsmanship and his aptitude for colour.
Berlin’s first solo exhibition was held in 1939 at Camborne Community Centre and a striking portrait of his first wife Helga not shown since then is included in the Penlee exhibition. Struggling to make ends meet, they found themselves in the midst of the St. Ives fraternity of artists where encouragement, support and inspiration came from key figures including Borlase Smart, Adrian Stokes, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon and Bernard Leach. At the same time he was researching a biography of primitive painter Alfred Wallis, finally published after the Second World War and still in print to this day.
Initially a Conscientious Objector, Berlin witnessed the bombing of Plymouth and after watching dog-fights over the Atlantic he decided to enlist. His moving pen and inks, produced while serving as a Forward Observer immediately after the D-Day landings in France, Belgium and Holland, have a memorable poignancy.
Invalided out of the army, Berlin returned to St. Ives, set up a studio in ‘The Tower’, and as a member of the St. Ives Society of Artists became a key player in the development of the St. Ives art movement. He carved a number of works including the Mermaid and Angel (1948) and the Lion which was commissioned for St. Austell Brewery, also producing monotypes, a technique taught him by John Minton, pen and inks and oils. The formation of the Crypt Group and then the Penwith Society led to his falling out with his fellow artists following the Modernist criteria set in order to exhibit. Until then he had been included in many of the Crypt Group shows, in numerous exhibitions in St. Ives, London and elsewhere. But the writing was on the wall as tempers frayed and disagreements festered.
Berlin and his new wife Juanita left St. Ives in 1953 in a Gypsy wagon determined to start a new life in the New Forest and the exhibition also incorporates many of Berlin’s New Forest Gypsy paintings, produced between 1953 and 1970, which had remained largely unseen until 2003 when they were shown at St. Barbe’s Museum & Gallery in Lymington. This event highlighted the affection in which Berlin was held in the New Forest and attracted many of the original Gypsy families who had helped him after he left St. Ives.
Following a move to the Isle of Wight for five years with his third wife, Julia, and then to Wimborne in Dorset, his later work came from an altogether different palette, still however drawing on the natural world for inspiration and exploring different techniques and subjects.
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