the landscape of pitheads, the sea, rocks, castles, trees, storms and poverty marked his earliest identity with a place and probably remained the most influential to his art.
he once described his paintings as ‘statements of kinship with the natural world’
Amongst a fine display of Scottish Colourists, McTaggarts and Glasgow Boys, a painting hangs in the collection of the newly refurbished Kirkcaldy Galleries titled Intérieur noir (1950). It’s an abstract expressionist collision of angular black lines and post-war greys, leavened by hints of primary green and red. The painting is by Methil born, William Gear (1915 – 1997) and dates from Gear’s ‘Cobra Years’ when he was one of only two British members of the post-war, European, avant-garde movement CoBrA. Two of the leading instigators of CoBrA, Asger Jorn (1914 – 1973) and Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, aka ‘Constant’ (1920 – 2005) would later become founding members of the Situationist International.
Sitting in the dark in the forgetting chamber. The trailer on the cinema screen is for a film called The Monuments Men. Directed by and starring George Clooney, the film looks to be a light-hearted comedy romp with a cast featuring Bill Murray, Matt Damon, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett amongst others. The trailer suggests a plot revolving around an unlikely band of allied troops tasked with finding and protecting important works of Art that the Nazis have stolen. At the time, I don’t really think a lot about this but it is clear from the preview that this will not be cinéma vérité.
Rows of miners cottages still stand squat and solid in the village of East Wemyss which sits between Kirkcaldy and Methil. The pithead winding gear of the Michael colliery would once have defined the surrounding landscape. At the time, the Michael was Scotland’s largest pit, but with a history of gas build up and spontaneous combustion underground. On 9th September 1967, a disastrous fire broke out in the mine. Although 302 men managed to escape, nine were killed and much of the coal reserves were destroyed. A memorial to the men stands in the village.
On the way to East Wemyss we had stopped at the site of the Frances Colliery, down the road at Dysart. The mine closed in 1989 but the pithead winding gear remains. A towering presence in the landscape evoking something of The Wicker Man. An industrial ghost of angular dark lines and winding wheels etched against the muffled blues and greys of a cold, damp, February afternoon.
On a more detailed view, we cannot help but be reminded of Gear’s Intérieur noir:
This image of the pithead lingers as we imagine tracing the footsteps of William Gear’s formative years around the streets and coastal paths of East Wemyss. It doesn’t take long before we also encounter the sea, the rocks, the ruined castle, the caves, and the trees.
A painting is not a construction of colours and lines, but an animal, a night, a scream, a human being – or all of these.
Prior to their involvement in the early phase of the Situationist International, Constant and Asger Jorn were key figures in the CoBrA avant-garde group. CoBrA was formed in November 1948 after six disaffected delegates walked out of a conference in Paris discussing proposals for an ‘International Centre For The Documentation of Avant-Garde Art’. The dissident group convened at Café Notre-Dame, and brought together: Constant, Karel Appel, and Corneille’s Experimentele Groep in Holland; Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret’s Revolutionary Surrealist Group from Belgium and Asger Jorn’s Høst Group from Denmark.
Dotremont came up with the name CoBrA (made up from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam) and a short founding statement:
the only reason to maintain international activity is experimental and organic collaboration, which avoids sterile theory and dogmatism.
There was no uniform CoBrA style but the artists were united in searching for new paths of creative expression based on spontaneity and experiment and complete freedom of colour and form. They drew their inspiration in particular from children’s drawings, primitive art forms and from the work of Paul Klee. Most of the founding artists had experienced life under German occupation and shared similar aspirations following World War II: a new society and a new art. The artists shared an interest in Marxism and saw themselves as a ‘red Internationale’ that would lead to a new people’s art.
CoBrA had a relatively short existence and was dissolved in November 1951. However in this short space of time it distinguished itself from other post-war artist groups by being a manifestly international movement with a number of Cobra artists also collaborating in smaller, loose, cross-border exhibitions.
Britain had only two artists who became part of the CoBrA group. Both were born in Fife. Stephen Gilbert (1910 – 2007) was born in Wormit (1) and William Gear was born in Methil.
(Gear) speaks about being inspired by Fifeshire harbours, pit heads, naked trees and hedgerows reminding us that he is essentially a landscape artist whose use of solid, black lines refers to Léger, the Forth Railway Bridge, and medieval stained glass windows (a common reference among Cobra artists).
Gear was born in Methil into the hardships of a poor mining family and grew up in the nearby village of East Wemyss. Initially the family lived in a miners row of cottages in Randolph Street and later in Approach Row. His father worked in the local pits, but had creative interests including photography and growing flowers. When young Bill began to show an aptitude for art, he was fully encouraged. Inspiration came from local teachers, the local library and visits to Kirkcaldy Art Gallery to view “Old McTaggart and Peploe.” A visit to an Edvard Munch exhibition in Edinburgh also made a huge impression. On finishing school Bill was encouraged to apply for a place at Edinburgh College of Art. Money was an issue for the family however small grants were available from Fife Education Authority, the ‘Carnegie’ and the Miners Welfare which made this feasible. As Gear recounts:
“this was rather lucky and it was a special Scottish thing or even a Fife thing, because the Fife Education Authority was quite left-wing, even Communist at one time and they very very much encouraged it, the education … and of course, the Carnegie and the Miners and in one way and the other, I was able to function…”(2).
Gear studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art, 1932–36, where he recounts: ” I was already doing my own thing a bit and being hauled over the coals for it, you know being advised to look at Ingres…” A year in Europe, on a travelling scholarship followed, where he ended up in Paris studying with Ferdinand Léger. It is likely that Gear first encountered Asger Jorn at this time as Jorn was working with Léger on his murals for the International Exhibition of 1937.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Gear was called up to serve in the Royal Signal Corps in Europe and the Middle East. However, he still found time to paint – mostly works on paper of damaged landscapes. He managed to stage exhibitions in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Cairo as well as one-man shows in Siena and Florence.
When starting to find out a bit more about William Gear, I had no idea that he had in fact been one of the Monuments Men which George Clooney’s film supposedly turns into a historic caper. There were around 350 men and women from 13 nations signed up to the Allied Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, during and immediately after the war. During 1946–7, Gear worked for the MFAA and was tasked with securing the safety of the Berlin Art Collection in Schloss Celle. He also organised an important series of modern art exhibitions, including work deemed by the Nazis as ‘Degenerate Art’ including Picasso and the German Expressionists. In particular, he promoted the work of Karl Otto Gotz who had been banned from exhibiting by the Nazis. Gear became a good friend of Gotz and later introduced him into the CoBrA circle.
Introduction to Cobra
It was during a period of army leave to Paris, in 1947, that Gear was introduced to Constant and Corneille by fellow Fifer, Stephen Gilbert. Gear had already met Jorn before the war and he also knew Jean-Michel Atlan and Jean Dubuffet. Gear therefore had social connections with the European avant-garde prior to the formation of CoBrA and when he demobbed in 1947, he headed for Paris and soon established a one-room studio at 13 Quai des Grands Augustins. Within a year there were exhibitions at two of the pioneering Paris salons and a first one-man show at the Galerie Arc en Ciel.
Gear was invited by Constant and Jorn to exhibit at CoBrA shows in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1949, alongside Corneille and Appel. In the same year, he exhibited alongside Jackson Pollock at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York.
Whilst Gear’s paintings could be described as a ‘reinvigorated form of abstract expressionism’ many display a suggestion of landscape, not least in the recurring titles:
There was always a link with nature, I never denied nature really. Even in
those extreme abstract themes we have been looking at, there is an equivalence to,
observable form. I don’t say nature in the naturalistic sense but of observable forms. They may be telegraph poles or stakes or trees or structures or, as I am looking out the window now, I mean, I can see, I can see my painting in two or three different ways. There is the severe architectural modern structure over there and at the same time
trees and foliage and blossom and light through the tree. I mean, there is my painting you see. This is where it comes from. I don’t necessarily sit down and paint that, but I am aware of it.
Festival of Britain 1950
Gear returned to the UK in 1950, recently married to Charlotte Chertok, and with a young son – David – in tow. It was an opportune moment for Gear who, out of sixty artists invited to submit, was one of six artists awarded a Festival of Britain Purchase Prize. Gear’s painting was a huge canvas – Autumn Landscape – and the only abstract work selected. Illustrating just how little some things change over time, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail took great exception to this ‘waste of public money’ and urged readers to complain to their Members of Parliament. The result was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskill, being asked in the House of Commons whether he was satisfied with the expenditure of public money on a painting that had been described as ‘trash’. Gaitskill deferred to the decision of the distinguished international jury who had awarded the prizes which represented a broad section of British Art.
Gear makes the point that the whole adverse reaction came from a small 3″x 2″ black and white reproduction printed in the Daily Telegraph before the exhibition had opened and anyone had actually seen the picture.
Gear became curator of the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne from 1958 to 1964, where he managed to change the local authority’s collection policy from Victorian and local views to securing the foundation of a major collection of post-war British art. He became head of the Faculty of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art in 1964, a post from which he retired in 1975.
Gear continued to paint until the end of his life and whilst out of critical favour for most of the 1960s and 1970s, a renewed interest and retrospective appreciation of the CoBrA movement has gone some way to reverse this. The major Cobra 1948-51 exhibition in 1982, at the Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris, included works by Gear and Stephen Gilbert and Cobra enthusiast Karel van Stuijvenberg has also been a prominent supporter. A retrospective of Gear’s The Cobra Years was held at the Redfern Gallery in 1987 and a much larger exhibition Paintings from the 1950s in 2006. The Cobra Museum of Modern Art was opened in Amstelveen, near Amsterdam in 1995 with Gear invited to attend the ceremonial opening. Only a few weeks before his death, he was awarded a Leporello Award, appropriately instigated by fellow artists and presented by the Lower Saxony government. This recognised Gear’s service in the MFAA and the promotion of “democratic art and artistic freedom.” Today, Gears work sits in public collections around the world including collections in the cities and towns of: Kirkcaldy, Aberdeen, Amstelveen, Belfast, Birmingham, Brighton, Buffalo, New York, Canberra, Caracas, Chichester, Cincinnati, Eastbourne, Edinburgh, Fort Lauderdale, Glasgow, Hereford, Kendal, Liege, Lima, London, Manchester, Middlesbrough, Nelson, Newcastle, New York, Ottawa, Oxford, Perth, Rye, Southampton, Stirling, Sydney, Stromness, Tel Aviv, Toledo, Toronto.
We finish our walk around these fundamental landscapes surprised by how much we appear to recognise, see or feel in Gear’s work. One final thought occurs as we pass Methil Docks which in Gear’s childhood would have been a bustling industrial complex exporting Fife coal around the world. The coal hoist structures for loading the ships may have disappeared but new industrial beasts are presently being constructed.
Perhaps a symbol of transition from a carbon economy towards a more hopeful low-carbon future. We wonder whether these structures will function as the pithead did for Gear. Burning themselves in to the (un)conscious mind of those local artists who will take it, remake it and connect it to the wide wide world. If the local support structures are in place…
Now Playing: Stereolab – Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night
Notes and references:
(1) Perhaps a future post on Stephen Gilbert will follow.
(2) Any quotes attributed to Gear and much of his life background comes from a phenomenal 278 page oral transcription: National Life Stories, Artists’ Lives, William Gear interviewed by Tessa Sidey. Recorded at various dates during 1995. © The British Library.
William Gear, The Cobra Years 1948-1951, The Redfern Gallery, 1987.
William Gear 1915-1997, Paintings from the 1950s, The Redfern Gallery, 2006.
John McEwen, William Gear (London: Lund Humphries, 2003).
Tessa Sidey, ‘Obituary, William Gear’ The Independent, Monday 10th March, 1997.