Magazine article The Spectator

Class Act

Magazine article The Spectator

Class Act

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 3

Class act

Gerald Wilde: A Forgotten Genius

The Millinery Works Gallery, 87 Southgate Road, London, N1, until 4 April

'All modern art puzzles me. I don't understand it, I really don't.' Philip Guston's remark to David Sylvester will strike a chord with many people confronted by a roomful of paintings by Gerald Wilde.

The nearest thing this country has produced to an abstract expressionist, Gerald Wilde (1905-1986) is not a name to conjure with, as this exhibition's subtitle, 'A Forgotten Genius', acknowledges. But it's a name that won't entirely go away, as tends to be the case - fortunately - with artists admired by their peers but misunderstood by the general public.

During his life - which despite his legendary drinking he managed to prolong until his 81st birthday - Wilde's few exhibitions were all in prestigious venues: the Hanover Gallery in 1948; the ICA in 1955; the Serpentine in 1977; and the October Gallery in 1979, 1981 and 1984. Notwithstanding an appearance that in 1970 led to premature announcements of his death when a neighbour mistook a dead tramp on his doorstep for the artist, Gerald Wilde was a class act. He didn't have to grub around for artistic recognition; his problem was resisting the temptation to flog new paintings for drinking vouchers long enough to assemble sufficient work for an exhibition.

In the circumstances, it's an achievement for the Millinery Gallery to have scraped together 24 works - 20 gouaches and four oils - for this show. The gouaches date from 1955, a productive year in a career once described as 'a series of interruptions' - wartime service in the Pioneer Corps, a schizophrenic episode in a mental hospital in 1954 and an ensuing fallow 15 years - punctuating the 'purgatory' of Wilde's life.

Gerald Wilde was born in London in 1905. He was not the illegitimate son of Oscar, as was later rumoured, though by an odd coincidence he was supported through art school by Lord Alfred Douglas. At Chelsea in the late Twenties and early Thirties he was taught by Graham Sutherland and befriended by Henry Moore. Lithographs from this period show a realist artist with a skewed view of reality, which would later slew right off the realist rails - when and how is unclear, since most of Wilde's pre-war work was destroyed in the Blitz. The show includes one intriguing example from 1934, 'Man and Woman', a sickly green oil of a predatory, glad-eyed lady moving in on a helpless man trapped behind a bar.

By the mid-Fifties, Wilde's representational vocabulary had fermented into an expressionist language of raucous colour and serpentine line that assaults the paper as if the lid has blown off a subconscious can of worms under pressure. …

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