Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 11 June 2017 (and previously shown at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts).
In 1861, the 80m tall spire and tower of Chichester Cathedral calamitously collapsed under its own weight from a structural failure of the piers, depositing as it did 6,000 tons of rubble into the nave below (6,000 tons! The Eiffel Tower, well over three times the height, weighs in at only 7,300 tons. You get a lot more height for your heft with steel – but I digress). You would think, to read the account of Victor Pasmore’s controversial conversion in 1948/9 from lyrical landscapist and Euston Road “Objective Realist” to abstract painter, collager and relief-builder, that the scale of disaster for the reactionary English art establishment who had thus far supported him was equally cataclysmic. Pasmore, prior to his apostasy, seems to have been the apple of many a well-connected eye, leading a rather charmed existence: working alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers to set up the Euston Road School in 1937; being supported and patronised by the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark from 1935 up to 1948. Then, having gone abstract, gaining the support and encouragement of Ben Nicholson; showing regularly at the Redfern Gallery, through all phases of work, until taken up by Marlborough in 1960; and being appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Durham/Newcastle , in 1954, where he taught alongside Lawrence Gowing. Throughout his life, he seems to have been well in with everyone that mattered.
In retrospect, the transition from figurative to abstract looks rather harmless and parochial. In this exemplary show at Pallant House Gallery, excellently and unobtrusively curated by Anne Goodchild of the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham, Pasmore’s evolution is set out chronologically (I love chronology! How different from the Vanessa Bell show now at Dulwich, which destroys all semblance of developmental logic by its intrusive theming), from his first talented efforts as a gifted young painter, taking us coherently through all his wildly different phases, up until the late sixties and his excellent design for the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, 1967, which is where the show ends. After which, Pasmore retreated to his house in Malta for thirty or so years, producing the ubiquitous and rather repetitive biomorphic paintings and prints that you now see all over galleries and art fairs. He died in Malta in 1998, aged 90.
So, what to make of this man who is described by Anne Goodchild in her catalogue essay as possibly “the patron saint of the committed Sunday painter”? Not a very flattering description, to say the least, but I think I know what she means. The exhibition moves very fast between the phases of his work, and as I walked around I jotted down the most visible and, to me, obvious of his influences, as follows: Cézanne; Vuillard; Degas; Manet; Corot; Matthew Smith; Morandi; de Staël; Klee; Schwitters; Seurat; Bruegel; Turner; Whistler; Mondrian; Gottlieb; van Gogh; Rodchenko/Tatlin constructivism; Nicholson; Le Corbusier; Miro; Arp. Bonnard and Kandinsky are also cited, but I couldn’t see them.
I repeat, these are just the obvious ones that I could point to. I have never been to Pallant House Gallery before; I have never been to Chichester before; and I’ve never known an artist to have such a long list of clear and present influences. Was the man really such a dilettante?
There is quite a lot to enjoy in the early figurative works between the mid-1930s and 40s, when Pasmore was deeply involved with, first of all, studying and continuing late Parisian Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; and then creating his own perhaps less successful brand of homespun “Objective Realism”. The figurative work becomes more wistful and supposedly lyrical as the forties progress, culminating in the “Hammersmith” paintings of semi-abstracted atmospheric river and outdoor scenes, such as The Gardens of Hammersmith No.2, made at about the same time as his first forays into abstract painting and collage. The London exhibition of work by Paul Klee in 1945 seems to have had a big impact, with Pasmore’s first 1948/9 abstract works of small coloured triangles and squares looking very similar to Klee’s painting from two decades before. Pasmore’s stock as a collectible artist crashed about this time, though the Redfern stuck with him.
If there is one aspect of Pasmore that I can relate to, it’s his struggle to work out what constitutes being properly “abstract”. In 1947/8, according to his own account, he goes from being an artist who “abstracts”… to an “abstract artist”. It’s a distinction I’ve made a few times (but which hasn’t stuck) and Pasmore was an early proponent of it (it didn’t stick for him either):
“…pure form refers to no other object. It is a reality, logical and sufficient in itself”
“…the transition from visual abstraction to visual development, and from visual representation to visual autonomy, is not a continuous one. A point is reached when one ends and the other begins.”
A couple of years on from his change to “abstract”, Pasmore was still getting flak from most critics, but In 1949 Patrick Heron praised his Redfern show of that year as a “…vital communication; air, light, space…”, pointing out “[t]he exquisite colour… the intricate, thoughtful balance of design… the extremely sensitive touch.”
And again, in 1950, Heron came to his support, describing Spiral Motif in Green, Violet, Blue and Gold now in Tate as a masterpiece of strong colour, the spiral motifs of which “…invent and define space without committing the painter to any subject-matter whatsoever.” I’m not so sure about the strong colour; Pasmore is essentially a tonal painter. That sensibility was to transfer directly into the whites, blacks, greys and browns of his later relief works.
Despite Heron’s encouragement, Pasmore had a somewhat fractious relationship to the artists of St. Ives, where a slightly different brand of abstraction was taking place. He argued for the distinction between pure abstract art, for which he strove, and the more relaxed positions of Nicholson, Hepworth and Lanyon, who embraced more easily the path of abstracting from figure and landscape. The gap between them now looks less clear-cut, since they were united in wanting a particular degree of distinctively simplified modernism; but Pasmore fought his corner:
“…there has grown an emanation of painting which has broken entirely with the visual tradition and has now nothing to do with the process of abstraction which visual painting involves. It is to this emanation that the term “abstract” correctly applies and it is towards this that I have attempted to lean. What I have done, therefore, is not the result of a process of abstraction in front of nature, but a method of construction emanating from within.”
He continued, rather more ambiguously:
“I have tried to compose as music is composed, with formal elements which, in themselves, have no descriptive qualities at all. The spiral movement which can be discerned throughout nature, in many different forms, is reduced to its single common denomination – the simple spiral.”
Critic Robert Melville muddied the water still further:
“These pictures, composed entirely of spirals, evoke the seas and the heavens, restless movement and a vast stillness, the mortal coil and a profoundly stirring sense of the ascent of the human spirit.”
By the beginning of the fifties, Pasmore had worked out for himself the contradictions of this position, wanting to leave behind the metaphors and the metaphysics, and find a more down-to earth approach to “real” abstract art, rooted in modern materials and techniques. He looked for a solution in the abandonment of painting in favour of constructed reliefs:
“Today… abstract art enters a phase of construction… It is this transformation…which places the artists at the beginning, and not the end, of an era of subjective art… In this new phase of art, the object is invested in the material with which the artist works…”
So began this new phase: a decade and a half or so of constructions:
A new association too began in the early fifties with the group of British constructivists centred around Kenneth Martin and the younger Anthony Hill. The Pallant House Gallery is currently showing, as a complement to the Pasmore exhibition in an adjacent room, the Catherine Petitgas Collection of British Constructivism. This small exhibition contains work by Norman Dilworth, John Ernest, Jeffrey Steel, Peter Lowe, Gillian Wise, Hill, both Kenneth and Mary Martin, and indeed, a late-ish relief from Pasmore himself, “Abstract in Natural Wood, with Black and White” of 1965-66. I don’t personally care at all for this kind of deadpan systems art (though Gillian Wise in more recent times continues still to produce quirky but intelligent work with a very individual colour sense), but the conjunction does serve to illustrate how intuitive and visual Pasmore was by comparison – not at all slave to the mathematics or any set of systematic rules. But then, these small-time mathematical doodles of the British constructivists don’t set the bar nearly high enough to make the comparison particularly important.
And the problem with Pasmore is for me flagged up by that earlier Heron comment: “…the intricate, thoughtful balance of design…”. Because, as with a lot of what I think of as “primitive” abstract painting and sculpture, such as that produced by the constructivists and systems artists and many others besides, Pasmore’s art from this period is very difficult to separate out from design. Pasmore undoubtedly had a very refined aesthetic sense, a “good eye” for the correctly positioned shape, line and dot; a natural talent for the compositional nuance. The relief works are entirely of a piece with applied design from the sixties, and even engage with the same materials – plastics, natural wood, aluminium etc. Some of the reliefs look inseparable from a utilitarian kitchen aesthetic. And of course, with his architectural involvement at Peterlee and his various mural commissions in factory and office foyers, Pasmore himself directly and willingly conflated his art and design.
And what of the Americans? In 1956, the Tate showed Modern Art in the United States: A Selection from the Collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Meyer Schapiro came to Britain to give a talk at Tate, entitled ‘The Younger American Painters of Today’, which was broadcast on BBC Radio and published in The Listener Magazine. It’s hardly likely Pasmore missed out on that. And it was followed by The New American Painting, also at Tate, in 1959.
Pasmore made a few paintings, such as Abstract in Black, White and Ochre, 1958, that looked like there was some influence from the Ab-Exes, but I don’t think he fully engaged. Or else he was deliberately resistant. Others were less so, more willing to soak up the lessons of the Americans on scale, colour, ambition, as well as some of the Pop Art influences coming through too. And so along came a new wave of younger British abstract artists – Robyn Denny and Richard Smith, Caro and then in 1965, the New Generation. That’s where I came in. By the time I got to art school in 1966, Pasmore was old hat, not to be considered worth a look, beyond the pale, though I can see now that he had strongly influenced the people who were then teaching me. The Pasmore aesthetic, and that of Moore and Nicholson, was the presiding modality of the preceding generation to mine, and as such, something to rebel against. I’d hardly started life-drawing classes, taught by a “Euston Road” style realist, before I was up and running with large scale hard-edge shaped canvases and coloured plywood boxes, à la Richard Smith and Bill Tucker.
So Pasmore’s crowning glory, the Peterlee Apollo Pavilion of 1967, passed me by completely. There’s a lovely model of it in this show (first illustration at the top) which looks like it was improvised from bits of wood and stuff lying around the studio, made on the hoof, so to speak, and really not “designed” at all.
Perhaps it’s odd, then, that Pasmore never attempted sculpture. The nearest he seems to have got was his 1957 collaboration with Richard Hamilton on the rather uninspiring installation “an Exhibit”, made from suspended Perspex sheets, which was reprised for the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture show in 2011. But right from the off, his paintings show an interest in spatiality and volume, starting with the Cézanne-esque Bradman Still Life of 1929, which emphasises rounded three-dimensionality over planar flatness; and continuing right through to his late reliefs, which appear to want to disown the picture-plane altogether. In the end, there seems to be something of a compromise between two- and three-dimensions in Pasmore’s work, which never becomes fully resolved or worked through. Nor, taken as a whole, does it ever become truly expansive, or sufficiently challenging or ambitious enough to put him near to being on a par with the French and English masters he revered.
The Grade 1 listed Queen Anne town house that forms the original part of Pallant House Gallery was enlarged in 2006 by the addition of a modern extension (with a somewhat uncharacteristically garish frontage) by the architect Colin St. John Wilson (notable for the British Library and various buildings in and around Cambridge), who then donated his art collection from his former home in Grantchester Road, Cambridge (one of his best buildings) of mainly sixties British painting and sculpture, adding to the permanent collection which consists of other small collections and donations, mostly modern.
I cannot in all honesty wholeheartedly recommend the Pallant House permanent collection, though the “reserves” appeared more interesting. There were also a handful of other small exhibitions on at the same time as the Pasmore, including the execrable Sidney Nolan, forerunner in “scrotty” painting techniques of the equally spiteful Anselm Kiefer, I’ve since realised (I’ll back up that claim another time!). But Pallant House Gallery is well worth a visit, and if you are interested by Pasmore, it’s a good chance to see how his career pans out.