oil on canvas
70 by 60 cm
framed: 84.5 x 71 cm
signed and dated lower right 'S.G. 59'; further inscribed on the reverse
in a Giaccherini tray frame
Private Collection, France until 2020
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Born near Perth, in Scotland, Stephen Gilbert was the grandson of the sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert. From 1929 to 1932, he studied painting at the Slade School, London, where he befriended Roger Hilton and met the sculptor Jocelyn Chewett, whom he married in 1935. The couple established themselves in Paris in 1939, but the following year, Stephen having been turned down for military service, they left for Ireland, where they spent the war years.
The Gilberts returned to Paris in 1946; it was a tough environment and they lived extremely frugally. A decisive moment came in 1948 when his paintings at the Salon des Surindépendants attracted the attention of the Danish artist Asger Jorn, who invited him to join the recently formed radical group, Cobra. Apart from William Gear, Gilbert was the only British member. He held an important position within Cobra, painting a central wall in the house they decorated with murals at Bregnerod, near Copenhagen, in 1949, and being the subject of a monograph in the series Petite Bibliothèque de Cobra. He also worked with the Dutch member, Constant Nieuwenhuys, in Amsterdam and Paris.
Together, in 1950 and 1951 Gilbert and Constant developed from the febrile imagery of Cobra to an abstract art of loose geometric forms and restricted colours, chiefly black and white. In Holland they studied Mondrian, Malevich and Rietveld, and, in the face of the rising tide of tachisme in Paris, structured their paintings of 1952 to 1953 with clear geometric planes coloured with strong primary colours on white grounds.
Wanting his colour planes to occupy real space, Gilbert moved from painting to three-dimensional, orthogonal constructions in 1953 to 1954, precisely made from painted aluminium sheet and angle. His move linked him to the English group of constructivist artists gathered around Victor Pasmore, including Anthony Hill and Kenneth and Mary Martin, and he showed with this group in London in 1954. In Paris, he joined André Bloc's Groupe Espace. Strongly influenced by De Stijl ideas, he aimed to destroy closed volumes and activate open space by means of rhythmic placing of coloured planes on an architectural scale.
In 1955 Gilbert moved further towards an architectural realisation of his ideas with a model for a house to be built in Yorkshire by an enlightened developer, Peter Stead. Further projects followed for blocks of flats made of mass-produced coloured metal and glass panels but, in the end, only two houses were built, and without Gilbert's collaboration. But he continued to develop his constructions, and in 1957 abandoned rectilinear frames and let coloured planes, in reacting curves, stand on their own. By 1960 he had ceased to use colour, relying on curved planes of polished metal, spreading from a central stem, to reflect the light and the environment in which they were placed.
He achieved some fame with these works, winning first prize for sculpture at the Tokyo Biennale in 1965.
The Sainsbury Centre currently has an excellent exhibition - Rhythm and Geometry: Constructivist art in Britain since 1951 - of the UEA Constructivist holdings with a number of early works by Stephen Gilbert on view.
Stephen Gilbert 'Untitled 1952" Christies 18/6/2019