Friday, 2 November 2012

Everyday Magic: Sven Berlin and Bruce Lacey on show in Penzance

English eccentrics Bruce Lacey and Sven Berlin current star in the two top shows in Penzance, Cornwall.

Penlee House, which generally shows the more traditional paintings of the Newlyn School, is currently hosting Sven Berlin, Out of the Shadows. Berlin (1911-1999) is best know as the author of The Dark Monarch, a kind of enhanced reality novel that landed him in deep waters with the mid century St Ives art community. 

The Dark Monarch went on to provide the name for probably the best show that Tate St Ives has ever staged, featuring work by historic and contemporary artists (including Berlin) about magic and the occult. Berlin, a romantic and resolute realist, was side-lined when he did not conform to Ben Nicholson’s new St Ives modernism and he left the community with his new wife to live with Gypsies in the New Forest. Berlin was a polymath – music hall dancer, author, painter, critic and free spirit. The Penlee House exhibition, which is the largest ever of his work, mainly focuses on his New Forest era paintings, which although not large, dominate the space with their straight from the tube primary colours, which furiously clash in a kaleidoscope of bad taste. 

Vladimir Tretchikoff, Water Lily, 1953-55

There is no subtlety here and the work is initially shockingly horrible to eyes more used to the sensitive subtleties of contemporary painting. Silver-Faced St. Sara (1956), depicts the patron saint of the Romany people and has much in common with Tretchikoff’s wildly popular kitsch images of exotic ladies. Another work, Ken Lee (1964), a portrait of the son of one of Berlin’s Gypsy friends, is painted on a dark blue ground, which is overlaid with wide brush strokes of bright red and yellow. 

Sven Berlin, Self Portrait

Other work includes numerous self portraits and a whole series of what could be termed magic realist scenes of woodland animals. Ultimately the bad taste is liberating – Berlin cared nothing for the art world and his exuberant originality provides a good example to many artists today who are too worried about conforming to current ideas around good taste.

The Exchange’s English eccentric is Bruce Lacey (born 1927) whose solo-show The Bruce Lacey Experience curated by artist Jeremy Deller and art historian Professor David Alan Mellor has just transferred from Camden Arts Centre. Like Berlin, Lacey started off with an interest in the music hall and this quirkily curated show has a selection of memorabilia including costumes and toys from his childhood as well as a selection of paintings from his time at Hornsea School of Art and the RCA (1948-54) which have the familiar British realist look you would expect - drab coloured Freud / kitchen sink school crossed with a pinch of Graham Sutherland style semi abstraction. 

Bruce Lacey, paintings on show at Camden Arts Centre

While at the RCA Lacey started his performance and filmmaking career, which drew on the music hall and is what he is now best known for. The Exchange is dominated by Lacey’s constructions - Heath Robinson style machines and animatronic figures constructed from household objects and bits of rubbish. These whirring machines provide the soundtrack to the space, which also includes videos of Lacey’s ritualistic performances at various sites around the Penwith area of Cornwall. On 17 November there is a chance to view the BFI’s recent release of Lacey related work The Lacey Rituals, followed by a guided tour of the exhibition by Jeremy Deller.

Bruce Lacey

The Bruce Lacey Experience has Jeremy Deller’s now familiar loving but ever so slightly patronising ‘look at this crazy art I have uncovered’ air. It includes touches such as hand written labels (by Lacey himself?) and has been accompanied by the reams of national publicity that a Deller project attracts (including a listing in the previews section of the current Film issue of Garageland). Sven Berlin Out of the Shadows is a more earnest small gallery exhibition with less knowing accompanying literature and a traditional busy hang. These minor points aside they are together a breath of fresh air – the rediscovering of a British heritage of originals and non-conformists who could hopefully provide new inspiration for British art. Bruce Lacey who had a surrealist fancy dress party for his 80th birthday says ‘the most important thing to remember is NEVER TO LOSE THE CHILD WITHIN YOU!’ Good advice for us all.

Cathy Lomax

Sven Berlin
 Out of the Shadows
Penlee House, Penzance, Cornwall
15 September - 24 November 2012
The Bruce Lacey Experience
The Exchange, Penzance, Cornwall

29 September 2012 – 5 January 2013



  1. Hi Cathy
    We knew Sven and went to several events in St Ives. Very much a character who did his own thing. There is a small bit of film footage that i found not so long ago on the internet. He was friends with Max Barrett originally from the New Forest who was a Romany who made sculpture and who lived near St Ives. One of my great memories is walking around Tate St Ives with Max who was bare footed and then sitting drinking tea with him and Sven's daughter Greta. Good times.....

    1. Thank you for this Delaine - amazing that you knew Sven he sounds like a one off. There is a nice short film made to accompany the current show which is worth checking out