William Gear

Danse macabre


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Not on display

William Gear 1915–1997
Ink and gouache on paper
Support: 369 × 539 mm
Purchased 1987

Display caption

The artist described this painting as having a sense of ‘wild abandon and somewhat sinister mood’. Gear’s free handling of paint and the suggestions of the demonic and primitive were in tune with the concerns of the CoBrA artists, with whom he exhibited in 1949. The artist said he used gouache because it gave him ‘the freedom of working in a spontaneous free style’.

Gallery label, July 2005

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Catalogue entry

T04995 Danse macabre 1948

Black ink and gouache on cream wove paper 369 × 539 (14 1/2 × 21 1/4)
Inscribed ‘Gear 48’ b.r., ‘Gear’ on back centre, ‘“Danse Macabre”’ on back centre left, ‘Paris | Sept ‘48’ on back centre right; ‘£550’ on back t.l.
Purchased from the Redfern Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Redfern Gallery 1987
Exh: William Gear: The Cobra Years 1948–1951, Redfern Gallery, July–Aug. 1987 (18)

‘Danse macabre’ is one of a number of watercolours and gouaches executed by Gear during September 1948. He was based in Paris from 1947 to 1950 and his studio, where T04995 was made, was at 13 quai des Grands Augustins, in the 6e arrondissement.

Gear used gouache in this work because, as he wrote to the compiler on 23 December 1988, ‘Gouache gave me the freedom of working in a spontaneous free style’. The title ‘Danse macabre’, he said, was ‘suggested by the [image's] wild abandon and somewhat sinister mood’. Gear sees the title as a useful tool because ‘a title can sometimes set the tone of a work of art or give a lead to the spectator’. The ‘mood’ of this work may have been inspired by the artist's experiences of ‘the war in Italy and Germany: chaos and destruction’. Gear served in the Royal Corps of Signals from 1940 to 1945 and from then until 1947 with the Control Commission, Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section, in Lower Saxony. He suggested in his letter to the compiler that the energetic and expressionist style of works in this period relected his aversion to ‘hygienic abstraction’. An extensive visit to Spain in 1947 engendered an admiration for flamenco dancing and for the rich blacks and reds employed by El Greco and Goya. Gear stated that both these influences informed his work at the time. A black-and-white monotype of 1948 (the artist, 248 × 326 mm) is titled ‘Danse espagnol’.

Several watercolours and gouaches painted by Gear in September 1948, though not T04995, were shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in November 1949, in conjunction with an exhibition of work by Jackson Pollock (no catalogue). According to Gear, when Betty Parsons visited his Paris studio in order to select works for the exhibition she was particularly struck by a violently spattered image propped up behind the sink. Gear was amused to inform her that the work in question was just an improvised splash-back and the image simply the accretion of weeks of spattered paint and water. Although ‘Danse macabre’ was not among those works selected for the exhibition in New York, it displays a precocious interest in action painting in the free handling of paint and thus anticipates Gear's more gestural works of 1949. However, compared to the freer and more abstract images of later works, T04995 contains suggestions of the demonic and the primitive, suggestions reinforced by the title.

Gear refers to T04995 as a Cobra work. He had met the Danish artist Asger Jorn in Paris c. 1937. Gear was then studying with Fernand Léger and Jorn was a recent graduate from Léger's school. After the war they met again in Paris at a time when Jorn and other young artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam were involved in the intense if shortlived experimental collaboration that resulted in the publication of the magazine Cobra and various group exhibitions. Jorn was immediately sympathetic to the aggressive spontaneity in handling and the resonant imagery employed by Gear. Through Jorn, Gear came into contact with other Cobra artists, initially the Danes including Ejler Bille, and later Corneille, Constant and Atlan. Gear was instrumental in introducing both his compatriot Stephen Gilbert and the German ex-Luftwaffe pilot Karl Otto Götz to the Cobra group. Gear exhibited work in several major Cobra manifestations, in particular, in the International Exhibition of Experimental Art at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in November 1949 and in the annual Host exhibition in Copenhagen that followed it. In 1950 he returned to England, a year before Cobra's demise.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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