William Gear

The Sculptor


William Gear 1915–1997
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1520 × 910 mm
frame: 1727 × 1124 × 65 mm
Purchased 1991


Between 1937 and 1950 William Gear spent most of his time in continental Europe and the Middle East. While staying in Paris during 1937-8 he met several of the School of Paris artists before the Second World War (1939-45) took him off to the Middle East and Italy as a soldier in the Royal Corps of Signals. For two years after the war he served in Germany, during which time he visited Paris regularly and joined the CoBrA group. After his demobilisation in 1947, Gear settled in Paris for three and a half years where he became associated with a strain of lyrical abstraction known as 'paysagisme abstrait' practised by such artists as Jean Bazaine (b.1904), Alfred Manessier (1911-1993) and Maurice Estève (b.1904). These artists combined the grid, a classic motif of pure abstraction, with forms and colours taken from the landscape. In 1948 the critic David Sylvester saw in Gear's work evidence of an approaching armistice in 'the doctrinal wars' (Sylvester, p.1) between abstraction and figuration. Indeed, for Sylvester such work 'revealed the fertility of that no-man's land between the trenches of the abstract and the representational' (Sylvester, p.1).

On his return to Britain in 1950 Gear soon gained notoriety as an exponent of European abstraction, particularly after Autumn Landscape commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the exhibition 60 Paintings for '51 won a £500 Festival of Britain purchase prize. The subsequent public furore made Gear a beacon for those artists involved in the postwar revival of abstract art in Britain. In 1953 he moved to Littlebourne, near Canterbury, Kent. It was there during June and July of that year that he painted The Sculptor. During this period he was working on ideas for sculpture, but it is not known whether these were completed or if the painting refers directly to them. The arrangement of forms can be read as a figure, with strut-like legs rising vertically from the lower edge and an insect-like head in the top right. The picture is not thought, however, to be the portrait of a particular sculptor.

The painting, which in its earthy colours and angular structure displays an allegiance to the aesthetic of 'paysagisme abstrait', combines considerable formal complexity with a new degree of sharpness. The spiky shapes are reminiscent of the so-called 'geometry of fear' sculptures which had represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1952. Herbert Read, who had coined the term, detected in the work of Lynn Chadwick (b.1914) and Kenneth Armitage (b.1916), among others, the visual expression of an all-pervasive mood of fear. While many of the sculptors caught under Read's term objected to it, Gear himself was opposed to 'the stupid small-time provincial Hampstead-type talk about Zeitgeist and angst and fears' which permeated much of Read's criticism (quoted in William Gear 75th Birthday Exhibition 1990, p.6).

Further reading:
David Sylvester, William Gear, exhibition catalogue, Gimpel Fils, London 1948
Sarah Wilson, 'Cosmopolitan Patternings: The Painting of William Gear', pp.5-12, William Gear 75th Birthday Exhibition: Paintings and Works on Paper; Cobra and After, exhibition catalogue, Redfern Gallery, London 1990, reproduced p.14, cat.no.15 (colour)

Toby Treves
October 2000

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Display caption

William Gear spent the late 1940s in Paris. He then used the earth colours and grid-like compositions typical of the School of Paris at that time. This painting shows the new angularity and sharpness that entered his work in the 1950s. It relates to the forms expressing anxiety that emerged in the new British sculpture after the Second World War, seen particularly in the work of Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage. This painting also refers to sculpture projects that Gear himself was considering at the time. It was painted in the same year as the Unknown Political Prisoner Competition, won by Reg Butler.

Gallery label, September 2004

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