In the 2014 film The Monuments Men, George Clooney plays one of a band of army art historians who fly into Germany at the end of World War II to locate and secure the artistic masterpieces pillaged and hidden by the Nazis. William Gear (1915-1997) did that in real life. In 1949 he took part in a joint show with Jackson Pollock in New York, and in Europe he exhibited with the Cobra group, the most influential and radical movement in the immediate post-war period. One of his paintings even resulted in questions in the British House of Commons in 1951. And yet today few people perhaps have heard of him: thus is the fickle nature of artworld fashions.
Like Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (5. Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald), he was born in Fife and educated at Edinburgh College of Art in its 1930s heyday. But his background was very different: his father was a coal miner, who was out of work for six months in the 1926 General Strike, rather than Barns-Graham’s middle-class family, and Gear pursued his early career not in the British artists’ colony of St Ives but travelling around Europe where he absorbed a range of foreign influences rather than the rather polite English modernism of Ben Nicholson’s circle.
Born in Methil, east Fife, William – Bill to almost everyone – excelled as a child at Buckhaven Academy and, with scholarships from the Miners’ Welfare Fund and Carnegie Trust, attended Edinburgh College of Art from 1932-36, with a year’s postgraduate study afterwards at ECA and Edinburgh University. He served as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals in World War II from 1940: for much of the time he was in peaceful Jerusalem, but was also involved in the invasion of Italy, where he painted, saw the sights, and even organised art exhibitions. He was also unfailingly generous to artists and other civilians he came across in his advance up the Italian peninsula.
After victory in Europe, he was posted to Germany with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives department of the Allied authorities, to administer the artworks which the Nazis had hidden in the Grasleben salt mines in Lower Saxony. He stayed in a castle near Celle and decorated his palatial living space with his choices from the collection, while doing his best to help and promote local artists, including Art Informel painter Karl Otto Götz. Gear’s finds among the Nazi collections included a collection of prints by “degenerate” artists, including Picasso and Kirchner; he held exhibitions of these prints as well as of porcelain, early books, and other works, which proved very popular with the German locals.
He was demobilised in 1947, with a sizable gratuity that funded a year in Paris. There he was popular both as an artist, and as a major in the liberating army. He made many friends including British painter Stephen Gilbert and Cobra founders Jean-Michel Atlan, Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille, and Asger Jorn. Although he did not subscribe to Cobra’s radical Marxist ideas (many would later be associated with Situationism), under the influence of them and other Parisian art such as Picasso and Leger, he created an abstract style based around coloured triangles and black lines.
In Paris he met and married the American Charlotte Chertok, who had admired his paintings at one of his shows. On a trip to New York she showed some of Gear’s work to the art dealer Betty Parsons, who organised a 1949 New York show where Pollock, then at the height of his sudden fame, showed in the main room and Gear in a side-room. As well as Cobra exhibitions on the continent, Gear showed regularly in London at Gimpel Fils.
In 1950 he returned to Britain, with wife and child, and set up home in rural Buckinghamshire, leading to a shift towards more pastoral paintings based around greens, yellows and oranges. He had become a leading figure in contemporary art, and was invited to contribute to the 1951 Festival of Britain, where his Autumn Landscape won a prize and was purchased for £500 by the Arts Council. Alfred Munnings, President of the Royal Academy started a campaign against this award, calling it scandalous waste of money on a “scheming, self-conscious, anglicised 50-year-old repetition of the Ecole de Paris”. This led to criticism of the purchase in parliament; Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Gaitskell defended the judges. The subsequent tour of the paintings brought more controversy, including debate on the radio program Any Questions. In 1952 his March Landscape caused a similar furore in New Zealand.
He was successful and popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but after that his reputation waned especially in Britain. In 1958 he became curator at the Towner public art gallery in Eastbourne, which was not a centre of the art world, even though artists including Lee Miller and Roland Penrose lived nearby. The pay was little, but it allowed time for painting. Again he struggled with authorities, battling the council to buy recent and abstract works. In 1964 he became head of Fine Art at Birmingham College of Art, a city where he lived for the rest of his life.
A growing interest in Cobra on the continent brought him later fame and appreciation. Gear was an active campaigner for modern art, as well as continuing to paint into his 80s. In 1997, by then seriously ill, he cancelled a hospital visit to collect a special award, the Leporello Prize given by the state of Lower Saxony and presented to him by future Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He returned in a wheelchair, was admitted straight to hospital, and died a few days later.
Through his career Gear showed a keen interest in new techniques: as well as oils, he was one of the first painters in Europe to do serious work with silkscreening. He experimented with tinned paint and later made use of oil sticks for producing small, quick paintings. His forms likewise show many changes within common ideas: he had settled on abstraction early. Initially his work was based in simple triangles with heavy black outlines. These bore the influence of Nicholas de Stael’s blending of abstraction and landscape, and of Leger and other artists. See for example Paysage au soleil couché (1948), Landscape Structure (1950; Tate), or Landscape (1949; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). But there was also the influence perhaps of the pit machinery of the Fife coal mines in the triangular grids, and the girder forms of the nearby Forth Bridge. Although predominantly abstract, he did include arboreal forms in many of his works, such as Trees (1949) and Wood Pile (1952) with its intercrossing branches.
Around 1950 he experimented with a looser, almost cartoonish style, as in Autumn Landscape (1950; National Galleries of Scotland) But the dominant tendency was towards a more intricate layout that depends on a complex relationship between the different parts of the painting, still using straight lines as an organising principle, sometimes vertical, sometimes diagonal or intersecting, mingled with more organic blobs and patches of colour. While his earlier works hint at three-dimensional forms, with their lattices and variable triangles giving the impression either of shapes above a background, or an undulating landscape after de Stael, the later paintings are purely flat. There is still a sense of the lattice imposed, breaking up an image into fragments so that only colours remain, without the forms. The best of these paintings, like November Landscape (1951) or Summer Afternoon (1952) show an intricate play of colour and form, balanced both locally across the linear boundaries and over the canvas as a whole. Some later works combined lines with geometric curves as in Landscape Garden (1981) or Cold Spring (1984) or cast off any linear framework to create blossoming or expanding forms, like Two Yellow Forms (1991).
There were also changes in colouration from the early works in Paris with their vivid red, blues, yellows, and patches of white. Once back in the English countryside tones were far more organic and reminiscent of nature with shades of green, brown, dun, and grey; however as with November Landscape he also made use of a more wintry palette. John McEwen suggests that despite Scotland’s colourists, the true colour of Scotland, up on the northern edge of Europe, is black. But many works do not fit into any schema, with constant variation in the degree of orderliness and the types of shape he used.
Despite a life which moved from high drama and scandal to the more modest life of a provincial arts administrator, Gear’s art remains apart from day-to-day concerns. He was an artist who explored the deepest of painterly questions: the best arrangement of pigment on a canvas. His abstract compositions repay careful study: the best allow almost endless opportunity to ponder the complex relationships, rhythms, and echoes that make up their painted surface. That is why he is considered one of the greatest British abstract painters, even if sometimes looking at the jumble of shapes and patterns you sometimes feel like Gear as a wartime signals officer faced with incomprehensible enemy messages.
William Gear, November Landscape, 1951. Oil on canvas, 152 x 91 cm.
(Main source: John McEwen, William Gear. Aldershot, UK: Lund Humphreys, 2003.)