William Gear: pioneer of post-war abstraction celebrated in new exhibition

A major RBSA exhibition featuring the work of William Gear will confirm his growing recognition as one of Britain’s masters of abstraction.

Colour and Form: William Gear (1915-1997) chronicles the development of his work over five decades and features some stunning works from a major private collection.

ART BLOG will be running a series of features on Gear. The first is a look at how this stubborn and solitary man stirred up the British art scene…

William Gear with ‘Mau Mau’ 1953, retrospective exhibition, South London Art Gallery 1954, (photo Ida Kar)

William Gear enjoyed an international reputation as a post-war pioneer of abstraction ranked alongside De Stael and Dubuffet.

His work was acclaimed in France and Germany but received less recognition in his native country.

St. Ives was the epicentre of experiments in Modernist ideas in the UK and although Gear visited his friends Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon there in 1948, he was not part of the St. Ives art scene.

RBSA Art Historian Brendan Flynn explains: “He was always an independent outsider and not inclined to join any formal group.

“As a result, his work has often been unjustly neglected and his contribution to British painting overlooked – astonishing when you consider he was taught by the Cubist trailblazer Fernand Léger in Paris and exhibited alongside Jackson Pollock in New York.”

Gear was one of the few British artists with personal experience of European Modernism and its leading protagonists. He travelled widely, had seen Picasso’s Guernica and then the effects of war with his own eyes when he entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war he settled in Paris where his work was included in pivotal CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam axis) exhibitions. With the artists Karel Appel and Asger Jorn, he sought a new expressionist language based on complete freedom of colour and form.

Gear returned to Britain in 1950 and stirred up controversy when his Autumn Landscape – produced for the Arts Council Sixty Paintings for ‘51 exhibition – was awarded a Festival of Britain prize. The ensuing furore secured his fame.

As a curator in Eastbourne, his acquisitions were frequently met with resistance, and yet the town is immensely proud of its 20th century collection today.

He moved to Birmingham to become Head of the Faculty of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art in 1964. He marked his arrival with bold statements on the need for art galleries to modernise, and for the RBSA to admit younger artists.

Brendan Flynn added: “Gear was instrumental in making some important acquisitions for the city, and he was the subject of a major RBSA retrospective in 1976. He championed modern art, and never ceased in his quest to bring it to a wider public.”

William Gear enjoyed some much-earned recognition in later life, with major exhibitions in Paris, the opening of the Cobra Museum of Modern Art near Amsterdam, and election to the Royal Academy in 1995, two years before his death.

Colour and Form is the latest exhibition to celebrate his contribution to British and European Art, and the RBSA is delighted to be hosting this major event.

Colour and Form: William Gear (1915-1997) opens on 1 November.

A William Gear Symposium will be held on 12 November, funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and featuring Dr Jennifer Powell, Senior Curator at Kettle’s Yard

Main image: Caged Yellow, (1996, Acrylic and Ink, RBSA) – donated by William Gear as his diploma work.

By Louise Palfreyman, WMMD blogger-in-residence

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