The Dark Monarch

The mystery, myth and superstition surrounding ancient Albion come under the spotlight in this magical show at Tate St Ives

The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, 1855-64, courtesy
The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, 1855-64, courtesy of Tate, St Ives
Britain has an interesting relationship to magic and the occult. Even before the Victorian obsession with spiritualism and ghost stories, it boasted an abundance of folkloric myths and pagan superstition. According to the St Ives artist Sven Berlin, this was largely due to the dark disturbing energy in the landscape. In his 1962 novel (banned for libel and only recently republished), Berlin described the forbidding ominous power that emanates from British soil as "the dark monarch".
Taking this as a starting point, Tate St Ives have curated what is possibly the most interesting exhibition the museum has ever put on. It’s a show that needed to take place against the elements – the black craggy Cornish rocks and sea’s horizon visible through the gallery windows. The Dark Monarch places its impressive collection of 20th century British art (Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Barbara Hepworth, Derek Jarman) against contemporary names exploring related ideas about the landscape, mystery and darkness (David Thorpe, John Stezaker, David Noonan).
It is this radical juxtaposition of pieces that makes the show so interesting. The old and new are mixed together to form an alternative path through British art. Here, a Steve Claydon sculpture stands opposite a monstrous animal skull painted by the 1940s artist Michael Ayrton and the mentally ill artist Richard Dadd’s fairy paintings; a strange occult installation by Mark Titchner stands beside a Henry Moore mask and one of Eva Rothschild's more disturbing hovering sculptures. The catalogue is also worth pointing out in its own right – with essays by Morrisey, Jennifer Higgie, Jon Savage and Marina Warner. Essentially, The Dark Monarch questions the history of modernism and how the magical resists and plays with those ideas of structure. Rather than addressing the Americanised imagery of Halloween, the gothic oddness of central Europe, or the wild death imagery of Mexico – The Dark Monarch explores what makes Britain so weird, wild and mesmerising.

The Dark Monarch: Magic and Modernity in British Art is at Tate St Ives until January 10

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