A rad­i­cal con­ver­sion

Ruth Guild­ing ap­plauds an ex­hi­bi­tion that charts the rein­ven­tion of a leading fig­u­ra­tive artist into a sig­nif­i­cant ex­po­nent of ab­strac­tion

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

In 1941, a self-taught artist named Vic­tor Pas­more was sit­ting out the war and paint­ing the same sul­try blonde nude over and over again. Twenty years later, he had re­de­fined him­self as a leading ab­stract artist whose com­mand of space and form was bring­ing in pres­ti­gious ar­chi­tec­tural com­mis­sions. Pas­more’s progress dur­ing a rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod in post­war Bri­tish art is told in this out­stand­ing ex­hi­bi­tion.

Obliged to leave Har­row school when his fa­ther died sud­denly in 1927, Pas­more be­gan his new life as a cau­tious, iso­la­tion­ist self-de­ter­min­ist. He took a cler­i­cal job at Lon­don County Coun­cil and en­rolled in even­ing classes at the Cen­tral School of Art, teach­ing him­self to paint in the style of the older gen­er­a­tion of the School of Paris. Dur­ing the 1930s, he moved up to Im­pres­sion­ism and the tenets of the Blooms­bury critic-cum-painter Roger Fry; an au­to­di­dact’s ad­dic­tion to mas­ter­ing cur­rent art the­ory be­came an­other of his traits.

Pierre Bon­nard was a par­tic­u­lar favourite, but Pas­more’s ver­sion of a Bon­nard, The Café (Tea Gar­dens) (1935), has a deeper pic­ture space and greater so­lid­ity. Parisian Café, painted the fol­low­ing year, is un­mis­take­ably af­ter De­gas, but seen through the prism of Cu­bism (‘I had tried my hand at ev­ery­one,’ Pas­more said later).

He came into con­tact with the mem­bers of the avant-garde Seven and Five So­ci­ety, but made cause in­stead with the painters Wil­liam Cold­stream and Claude Rogers, tak­ing up their ‘Ob­jec­tive’ re­al­ism that con­cen­trated on ob­serv­ing and record­ing as well as ob­tain­ing a part-time teach­ing post at their Eus­ton Road School.

With fi­nan­cial sup­port from a new cham­pion—the na­tional Gallery’s di­rec­tor Ken­neth Clark— Pas­more was able to give up clerk­ing to paint and teach full-time.

War changed all this. The Eus­ton Road School closed, Cold­stream en­listed and Pas­more with­drew to a house in Ebury Street, where 1941 found him paint­ing and re­paint­ing Wendy Blood, his volup­tuously naked young wife, preg­nant with their first child. He de­clared him­self a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, de­serted and was briefly im­pris­oned. De­camp­ing with his fam­ily to Wind­sor and still funded by Clark, he went on ex­per­i­ment­ing with space and form, paint­ing lo­cal river­scapes af­ter Whistler and Turner or ef­ful­gent snow scenes of a dream­like es­capism that was provoca­tively out of step with the times.

Art his­to­ri­ans have to be wise af­ter the event, find­ing and nam­ing the in­no­va­tive steps in an artis­tic ca­reer that res­onate to the art world’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary cur­rents, but those artists who suc­ceed tend to be dex­trous at tak­ing the steps that will mark them for pos­ter­ity. When Pas­more fi­nally cast off his pa­tron Clark’s pro­tec­tion and ‘came out’ as an ab­stract artist, show­ing in the Lon­don Group Ex­hi­bi­tion in 1949, he knew pre­cisely what he was do­ing.

The Eus­ton Road ex­per­i­ment had left him about 20 years be­hind Ben ni­chol­son and the early adopters of ab­strac­tion. The art world was turn­ing mod­ern and, from then on, he would make paint­ings to suit that were ‘evoca­tive’ rather than rep­re­sen­ta­tional in the lit­eral sense. He caught up, crib­bing from di­a­grams pub­lished in a French

text­book that showed how to achieve har­mo­nious space and move­ment in a com­po­si­tion by plac­ing geo­met­ric shapes in proper bal­ance. A brief visit to Ni­chol­son, spent draw­ing the coast­line of St Ives, pro­duced his Da­m­a­scene break­through work, Rec­tan­gu­lar Mo­tif, Black and Olive (1950). With painstak­ing ap­pli­ca­tion, Pas­more had taught him­self the new busi­ness of ab­stract form. His large paint­ing Spi­ral Mo­tif in Green, Vi­o­let, Blue and Gold: The Coast of the In­land

Sea (1950) was ac­quired by the Tate only three years af­ter it was made. For him, it was log­i­cal to progress fur­ther, push­ing on to­wards a ‘phase of con­struc­tion’.

As Master of Paint­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Durham, he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced new tech­nolo­gies, tasks and ma­te­ri­als, ex­press­ing his spa­tial sen­si­bil­i­ties in ever more rig­or­ous re­lief con­struc­tions of wood and plas­tic rep­re­sent­ing brave new ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments, in­te­grated, dy­namic utopias for liv­ing.

The re­sults of his the­ory-driven ide­al­ism fill the last two gal­leries of the show. Here, his se­vere ge­om­e­try is brought to bear on the de­sign of Peter­lee New­town in Co Durham and the Apollo Pav­il­ion, fo­cal point of his Sunny Blunts hous­ing de­vel­op­ment, later van­dalised by its con­stituents.

In his rest­less search for progress, Pas­more made in­no­va­tive, strik­ingly beau­ti­ful paint­ings, re­liefs, con­struc­tion, ma­que­ttes and prints. The su­perb group as­sem­bled at Pal­lant House is am­pli­fied in an ex­cel­lent cat­a­logue that is well worth own­ing, too.

‘Vic­tor Pas­more: To­wards a New Re­al­ity’ is at Pal­lant House Gallery, 9, North Pal­lant, Chich­ester, West Sus­sex, un­til June 11 (01243 774557; www.pal­lant.org.uk)

Above: Spi­ral Mo­tif in Green, Vi­o­let, Blue and Gold: The Coast of the In­land Sea (1950) Re­clin­ing Nude (1942), one of sev­eral paint­ings by Pas­more of his wife, Wendy Blood Be­low:

Tri­an­gu­lar Mo­tif in Pink and Yel­low (1949). Al­though in­spired by the Cu­bist col­lages of Pi­casso and Braque, Pas­more’s are ab­stract

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