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