Joining the Personal to the Universal – Edward Lucie-Smith

The trajectory of Dave Pearson’s artistic career was a curious one. His earliest paintings and drawings, made in London, are essentially domestic. They record his urban surroundings, in the part of working class London where he lived, and, within doors, life in his family home. We see, for example, his father working as a tailor. The domestic note in these paintings and drawings seems to align him with the Kitchen Sink School of painters, led by artists such as John Bratby, Derrick Greaves and (in the first part of his career) by Jack Smith. There is a touch of Expressionism, mingled with elements of Social Realism. Sometimes, however, there are things that remind one of the work of L.S. Lowry, who is now regarded as the pre-eminent painter of the urban landscape of the North of England and its inhabitants. One of the notable things about Lowry’s panoramic compositions is that they seem to represent, not only a particular place, but also a particular community. They are, in the plural, portraits of human activity.Parents

Though Pearson was born in the South of England, he spent most of his life in the North, settling in the mill town of Haslingden in Lancashire, a site of the then rapidly declining local textile industry. He taught at the Department of Fine Arts of Manchester Polytechnic, later part of Manchester Metropolitan University. Though he showed work in his early career at the New Art Centre in London, then a very fashionable commercial gallery, with a distinguished roster of artists, most of his major showings were elsewhere. Particularly notable was the sequence of ambitious exhibitions held at the Bede Gallery, Jarrow, from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. These exhibitions passed largely unnoticed in London – certainly in the more elite parts of the metropolitan press. They did, however, help to bring him a devoted band of local disciples.

Particularly notable was the sequence of ambitious exhibitions held at the Bede Gallery, Jarrow, from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. These exhibitions passed largely unnoticed in London – certainly in the more elite parts of the metropolitan press. They did, however, help to bring him a devoted band of local disciples.

These were also attracted to Pearson by his empathy as a teacher, and by his willingness to organize large-scale performance events, such as one created with colleague Joan Beadle, based on Saint-Saëns’ sequence of fourteen musical miniatures, Carnival of the Animals. The music contains frequent humorous touches, which seem to have played a part in attracting Pearson’s attention to it, since he knew that the element of parody would help to draw participants in. Events of this kind can also be linked to Pearson’s interest in English folk customs, expressed in his English Calendar Customs series, and in a solo show entitled In the Seven Woods (1983), which was a celebration of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This ceremony, first recorded in the year 1226, is one of the few English ritual customs to have survived the passage of time. The Dance will be repeated this year on 10th September 2012.

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In fact Pearson’s work can be seen has having had three major strands – the purely personal and autobiographical, prominent at the beginning of his career, during the 1980s, and also at the very end of his life; involvement with the community that surrounded him, and in particular with the institutions where he taught, and a grand sense of historical perspective that is unusual in British art, and perhaps especially so in the British art of our own day. These elements come together in a stylistic amalgam that prompts some initially surprising comparisons – to the Surrealism of André Masson for example, and (an even closer comparison) to the Russian Futurist Pavel Filonov. Filonov embraced principles of what he called ‘anti-Cubism’. According to him, Cubism represented objects by analyzing their surface geometry, whereas true art must, instead, represent reality by searching for its inner soul. This approach he called ‘Analytical Realism’.

Filonov died of starvation in 1941, during the Siege of Leningrad. His work, after a long period of suppression in Russia, only became known in the West through a major exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in 1990, and it is unclear if Pearson knew anything about him. Yet the resemblances between the two artists are often striking. Both invest their work with a kind of spiritual force that is rare in 20th century art, whatever other virtues it may seem to possess. In Filonov this can be traced back to the Russian icon tradition, where episodes from scripture are presented as transcendental events. The spectator does not simply view these from a distance, but becomes fully part of them.

The Meal

In Pearson’s art, the roots of this mystical element are less easily traceable. Yet the more one studies his work the more obvious its presence becomes. The only other major 20th century British artist fully committed to themes of this kind was Stanley Spencer, though major traces of the same impulse are to be found in the work of Graham Sutherland and Cecil Collins. Spencer’s murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere offer a useful comparison here. So, too, in a looser sense, does Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ at Coventry Cathedral.

Pearson’s progression towards his fully mature style was not through any form of religious imagery but through his fascination with the work of Van Gogh, often chosen as a mentor by later artists who feel themselves to be stylistically isolated and out of the mainstream. Francis Bacon’s early series of variations on a Van Gogh self-portrait, painted in 1957, nearly ten years before Pearson began his series of transcriptions, seem to respond to the same impulse.

Pearson’s progression towards his fully mature style was not through any form of religious imagery but through his fascination with the work of Van Gogh, often chosen as a mentor by later artists who feel themselves to be stylistically isolated and out of the mainstream.

At the table

At the table

One element in Van Gogh’s art that clearly appealed to Pearson was its tendency to constant self-scrutiny, expressed in self-portraits that have achieved, like Rembrandt’s self-portrayals, iconic status in the history of Western culture. Pearson’s own series of self-images exceeds both Van Gogh and Rembrandt in terms of number. They show a huge range of stylistic flexibility, with each change of style reflecting a change of mood.

Pearson’s versions of Van Gogh were often vastly ambitious, and went well beyond the boundaries conventionally assigned to painting. One was a full-scale three-dimensional version of the Bridge at Arles, built on the roof of the Bede Gallery in Jarrow, as part of a show staged in 1990 to celebrate the centenary of Van Gogh’s death.

By this time Pearson had already begun work on the first of the two major series that were to define his career – Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium. The inspiration was not directly from the history of the Byzantine Empire itself, but came from the famous poem, Sailing to Byzantium, written by W.B. Yeats. This is a text, universally acknowledged as one of the greatest poetic utterances of the 20th century, over which literary critics argue endlessly. Some see it at optimistic, some as deeply pessimistic. It also reads both as a celebration of artifice and as a rejection of it. One may perhaps get a glimpse of why Pearson was fascinated by the poem from what Yeats himself had to say about the city of Byzantium in his prose explanation A Vision:

 I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers – though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract – spoke to the multitude and the few alike.

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One has to remember here that, immediately before he began the first Byzantium paintings, Pearson painted a large canvas to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Jarrow March of 1936, a landmark event held to protest the chronic unemployment and extreme poverty that afflicted the working population of North East England as a result of the world-wide Great Depression. He was always at heart a populist, just as much as he was a mystic, but with a sense, too, of the history of populism – evinced, for example, in his fascination with folk customs linked to the culture of medieval England.

The huge multi-panel Byzantium paintings are not esoteric works addressed to the few, but directly popular in their intention. In their original form they fully embraced the spectator, in a literal, physical fashion. For example, when the second Byzantium sequence was shown at the Bede Gallery, there were even paintings fixed to the ceiling, with mirrors placed below to allow for an easier view. These paintings, crowded with figures and incidents, are an attempt to create a fully immersive art.

One striking feature of these compositions, however, is that the style is not naturalistic. The crowded figures, and all the other components, are created out of small, flat coloured elements, abstract in themselves, but intricately fitted together so that the result can be read as figurative. It is relevant to quote here the final verse of Yeats’ poem:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling . . .

Pearson clearly wanted his work to be seen as deliberate artifice, a radical transformation of the thing seen, despite his otherwise populist intentions. In this he differed widely from the ambitious history painters of the 19th century, such as Alma-Tadema, to whom he might otherwise be compared. He says, not “This is how you might have seen the historical event,” but “This is how I personally imagined it, and absorbed it into my own imaginative cosmos.”

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At the end of Pearson’s career there was a return to autobiography – work inspired by the artist’s final illness. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, first of the bladder, then of the oesophagus, and died in 2008. In this series of images, too, one finds the echo of a celebrated poem, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night. The images are, on the one hand, very direct, with a use of photographic material that brings the sordid reality of mortal illness very close to the viewer.

Other works, however, manage to convey the artist’s situation in a different way They seem at first sight to be unspecific – complex abstract stringed constructions in shallow box frames. Examined more closely, they become brutally, terrifyingly truthful reports about the physical realities of the artist’s situation and the inexorable progress of his malady. They speak about a struggle he knew he was going to lose – and at the same time, they celebrate it. Interestingly, the first of these stringed constructions were created in 2002, before the onset of his illness. They were therefore also prophetic. Some of the earliest examples make use of found objects and plaster casts that link them to Second Gulf War, which began in 2003 with the allied invasion of Iraq. They therefore offer yet another example of Pearson’s ability to join the personal to the universal.

COPYRIGHT: Edward Lucie-Smith 2012