Adventuring into the life and work of Cuckoo Town's King of
Opened on what would have been his 101st birthday, if only Sven Berlin himself could have been at Penlee House Gallery in Penzance for his retrospective exhibition there I'm sure he would have loved every second of it, writes Frank Ruhrmund.
A legend in his own lifetime, arguably the largest and most colourful of the many who helped fill the canvas that covered the immediate post-war art scene in St Ives, anyone who knew him at all in any way will have his or her own story.
For me, as a very young would-be bohemian, he was a role model. If there was a King of Bohemia then Sven Berlin was it. Not only a talented artist, but a good-looking one at that who appeared to have the pick of all the equally good-looking young women in the town, black-bearded and black-capped, he reigned supreme as the romantic wild man of the west, the "enfant terrible" of St Ives artists. It was impossible not to envy him.
It is now almost sixty years since he left St Ives and, although he wasn't in the town all that long the impact he made while there was impressive. As Toni Carver, editor of The St Ives Times & Echo, once said: "Part of him seems to remain here – a disjointed soul haunting Downlong."
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The Penlee show, Out Of The Shadows, is one of the most comprehensive yet to be devoted to him, embracing the many phases of his long life. And it is the associated aura of St Ives, the memories of his topsy turvy days there and the presence of several of his works from that period which make this exhibition so absorbing.
He once declared: "I am so deeply rooted in the Cornish landscape that to go and carve in a city, in a forest, or among mountains, would so alter my vision that it would probably be impossible to work for a considerable time."
As fate would have it, he was to work in the New Forest to which he and his second wife Juanita travelled from St Ives in a horse-drawn caravan, which is described in his book, Dromengro. He wrote a number of titles, including a biography of Alfred Wallis, I Am Lazarus, Jonah's Dream, The Pride Of The Peacock and Amergin, but the one he will always be remembered for was his controversial The Dark Monarch from 1962. A book which he lifted the lid off Cuckoo Town (St Ives) and its arty nestlings, it caused a storm which would have blown away lesser authors. It ruined him financially and haunted him for the rest of his life.
While the 60 drawings and paintings in this exhibition are stunning, as good as he was with brush or pen, it is as a sculptor that, for me at least, he was at his very best.
Speaking about his work he once said: "Each time a new idea thunders down, like a wounded yak, I tremble with fear and excitement – another adventure has begun."
From Timeless Man and Lovers to Sleeping Man and Greyhound, there are several of his sculptural adventures here and they steal the show, which is one big adventure.