Kenneth Martin Abstract black and grey squares and lines
Modern British & Irish Art

Victor Pasmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin and British Constructionism

By Corinne Chalaby

V ictor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin represent an approach to Post-War British Abstraction based on purity, form and the aesthetic potential of mathematical systems. As the Russian Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich sought to start from a ‘ground zero’ in his return to the primary forms of circle, square and triangle, so too can the practices of Pasmore, the Martins, Anthony Hill and Stephen Gilbert, often described as the British Constructionists, be understood. In our upcoming September 2018 Made In Britain sale we are selling four key examples of the work of Passmore, Kenneth and Mary Martin.

Kenneth and Mary Martin met while studying painting at the Royal College of Art in 1929. They were married a year later, continuing to study at the RCA until 1932 and subsequently working in adjacent studios until Mary’s premature death in 1969. During the War the Martins taught at art schools: Kenneth at Camberwell and Goldsmiths and Mary at Chelmsford School of Art. On the birth of their two sons, John in 1944 and Paul in 1946, Mary stopped producing art until her children were of school age. Nonetheless, she later reflected on the symbiotic relationship between the raising of her children and artistic practice.

‘Both art and domesticity satisfy your sense of order’
Mary Martin cited in Ceila Davies and Sara Martin Kenneth and Mary Martin : Constructed Works, London, 2007

Throughout their careers the artists worked across a range of media including painting, sculpture, print, collage, relief and mixed media. By contrast, Victor Pasmore is primarily known for his paintings and prints although he did make some experimental works in relief using wood and coloured perspex.

Pasmore’s route to becoming a leading artist of his generation was more unconventional. Although his talents as a painter had been encouraged by his parents and teachers, the death of his father in 1933 required him to take a job as a clerk in the Department of Public Health in London until 1937. During this time he attended evening classes at the Central School of Art and immersed himself within the London art scene. Indeed he first worked with Kenneth Martin during this time, when they co-founded the Euston Road School of Artists alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers. The school emphasised the strict observation of nature and took inspiration from the urban realism of Walter Richard Sickert.

Although the artists achieved international renown for their radically new contribution to British art, they began their careers looking back to earlier styles. Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and JMW Turner were early influences on the artists, inspiring a loosely painted naturalistic idiom. Reflecting on his path to abstraction, Pasmore commented:

[I witnessed the] revolution of Painting ... when the naturalist painter has been forced to start completely again
Victor Pasmore

It is interesting to note that even after Pasmore’s work lost any direct resemblance to nature in the 1950s, there is an organic biomorophic quality to his works, for example Two Images which features in the sale. In addition Mary Martin used the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical theorem founded on recurring patterns in nature, in her early abstract works such as Expanding Form (1954). Nonetheless, the formal qualities which characterise the Martins practice have a rigid industrial quality structured around starkly delineated geometric shapes and ordered according to mathematics and chance. This shift in emphasis sets them apart from the curving organicism of Pasmore’s paintings.

In their approach to abstraction the Martins and Pasmore were inspired by the theories of the American artist Charles Biederman. Hs book Art as The Evolution of Visual Knowledge was published in 1948 and copies were owned by Passmore and the Martins. In this text Biederman argued that brightly coloured relief was the natural extension of painting and that art works should be produced according to systems of number and modular units. There is a clear parallel between these ideas and the relief work, mobiles and repetitive patterns which developed in the practice of Passmore and the Martins’s from 1950.

In 1956 Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin contributed works to the seminal exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Gallery. This is Tomorrow marks one of two occasions during Mary Martin’s life time where she and Kenneth created a collaborative work: an architectonic piece with wall reliefs created by Mary surrounding a rotating mobile created by Kenneth. The exhibition had sought to put into focus the contrasting approaches to British Post-War Abstraction, notably between the British Constructionist Group and the more famous Independent Group, who were at the very forefront of Pop Art.

The moment I became a purely abstract artist I began to realise what I had been missing....That I’d really missed the whole of the modern movement
Kenneth Martin

Nonetheless what emerged from the exhibition was not the polarisation of the artists but rather the parallels. The work of Passmore, Kenneth and Mary Martins may have a visual austerity and severity but importance given to movement, colour and chance invoke a playful optimism.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's