Modernism found fertile ground in the North East after the war. DAVID WHETSTONE views an exhibition devoted to two of its prime movers
All artists have the potential to change the look of a place with a mural or sculpture but some have been given the chance to work on a bigger ‘canvas’.
Twin exhibitions at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery focus on Victor Pasmore and Peter Yates whose careers coincided with modernism and the creation of the North East’s new towns.
Pasmore worked with the architects responsible for Peterlee in County Durham, leaving as his calling card the Apollo Pavilion.
Yates, as one half of the architectural practice Ryder & Yates, was responsible for buildings including the Engineering Research Station at Killingworth and Newcastle’s MEA House.
One thing that makes these exhibitions so interesting is the hostility that some of this work has since generated.
That it survives at all seems miraculous. The concrete Peterlee sculpture was never embraced like The Angel of the North – far from it – and an engineering research station is not something that plays a part in people’s lives like a church or a library.
That both are now listed Grade II* shows that they are deemed to have intrinsic value even if they can’t lay claim to widespread affection. The campaign to save the Ryder & Yates building, revered in architectural circles, goes on.
The linked exhibitions at the Hatton reveal the two men as committed and talented artists inspired by the new.
In Victor Pasmore: In Three Dimensions we see how the artist, self-taught because the family couldn’t afford art college, moved from figurative art to abstraction to 3D.
By the time he came to Newcastle University as head of painting in 1954, he had abandoned conventional oil painting, contributed to the 1951 Festival of Britain (collaborating with architects for the first time) and fallen in with a grouping known as the British Constructionists.
He saw art as akin to music and wanted to push it outside the frame – hence the wall-mounted constructions of wood and Perspex whose angles and appearance changes as you shift position in front of them.
Exhibition posters in a graphic style redolent of the 1950s and ‘60s show the widespread interest in Pasmore’s work at that time.
His ambitions grew. In 1957, in this very gallery, he exhibited a pioneering work called An Exhibit. It was an installation comprising suspended sheets of coloured Perspex which invited the visitor not just to view the work but to venture inside it.
A copy of the catalogue survives, along with photos of the piece being installed.
Printed on tracing paper to mimic the Perspex, the catalogue describes An Exhibit as “a game, a maze, a ceremony completed by the participation of the visitors”.
It was designed to be fully immersive art and, although coloured Perspex sounds more fun than concrete, it was one small step from there to the Apollo Pavilion.
In the back room of the gallery is Peter Yates: Paintings 1939 to 1982, the latter the date of the artist/architect’s last exhibition in this space.
Yates knew Pasmore and also worked for a time on the Peterlee new town project before establishing Ryder & Yates in Newcastle with Gordon Ryder.
He had studied architecture in London and was a member of St Paul’s Watch, dedicated to preserving St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz, before enlisting in the RAF in 1941.
His wartime experiences informed his approach to art and architecture. In Paris he met avant garde practitioners who were envisaging the new world that would rise from the rubble.
The paintings here have more obvious popular appeal than MEA House or the Killingworth research station although maybe that should make us look at those buildings with a keener eye.
Hanging near a collage of North Tyneside’s under-appreciated modernist treasure are Yates paintings inspired by the island architecture of Minorca and Santorini.
Other paintings recall the bustle of a resurgent post-war Paris, all dancing graphics and jumbled lines, and St Paul’s Cathedral, palely vulnerable against the wartime blackout.
Also on show, sandwiched between these two exhibitions, is another featuring work by David Bilbrough and John and Karen Topping inspired by the legacy of Ryder & Yates.
Bilbrough made collages inspired by the architects’ meticulous designs and responded to the slides in the archive, some of which are on show behind a black curtain.
This is a good place to spend a few minutes relaxing on one of the black sofas and looking at the hypnotic projections of digitally reworked Ryder & Yates designs.
They were commissioned in the late 1950s by the British Plaster and Boards Company for trade shows at Olympia but the Toppings have turned them into something much less mundane.
The Yates and Pasmore exhibitions run until May 15; Composite Mind: Contemporary Responses to Ryder & Yates until April 11. Check www.twmuseums.org.uk