I didn’t know anything about Victor Pasmore before I went to the exhibition of his work currently on at Pallant House Gallery, although I was familiar with one of his paintings without knowing it was by him. During years of drooling over pictures in art books and magazines, I must have seen reproductions of his Coast of the Inland Sea, and it made a lasting impression on me: it’s a bold image of swirling lines, graphic marks and a sophisticated simplicity. It’s a lyrical abstract landscape, and I love it.
So, it was a bit of a shock to walk into the first gallery in this exhibition, and see Pasmore’s early paintings. The young Victor was obviously inspired by Sickert’s impressionistic scenes of everyday life, and the pastel drawings by Degas of women washing themselves. In 1937, Pasmore was involved in setting up the Euston Road School, which was dedicated to realism, the traditions of figurative painting and disciplined observation. It was all very British and turned its back on wild, expressive avant-garde art across the Channel.
But the war brought an end to the school and – after a short stint in the army, followed by imprisonment for desertion and being a conscientious objector – Victor painted a series of views of the Thames, very much in the manner of Whistler’s subtle and luminous paintings of the same subject, with a touch of the Turneresque.
In the mid-1940s, Victor seems to have taken a sudden interest in Post-Impressionism, taking inspiration from the work of Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Seurat and exploring new ways of painting using shifting viewpoints and pointillist dots; he also experimented with Cubism, and studied the writings of Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Arp. Embracing the European modern art he had previously shunned, Pasmore developed a distinctive way of painting with patterning, stylisation and abstract shapes.
In the 1950s, Victor turned his attention to creating relief constructions, an art form between paintings and sculptures: the first ones were made of painted plywood and have a rough-and-ready handmade character; the later pieces incorporate Perspex, and look machine made.
When he returned to painting, he produced a series of abstracts dominated by simple shapes in a strong colour, edged with minimalist black lines, and integral frame. In his later years, Pasmore set up his studio in Malta, where he painted big, bold, colourful abstracts and continued to create relief constructions.
This exhibition shows the amazing variety of Victor Pasmore’s work as it traces his story from realism to abstraction. Was he a restless spirit constantly seeking an ever-elusive answer to his own personal artistic questions? Or did he simply enjoy chopping and changing? Did he thrive on novelty? Or just get bored with his own work? Who knows?
Personally, I’m relieved to find an artist I can identify with: I don’t know from one day to the next whether to focus on being an abstract painter or a digital artist or a photographer or a writer. Maybe I can be all of them…
Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, is on until 11 June.