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Obituary: Morris Kestelman

ALTHOUGH FOR the last 35 years Morris Kestelman concentrated on abstract painting, he is probably best known for his depictions of French peasants, Spanish fishermen, circus artistes, and beautifully composed landscapes where light and shade alternate in playful, subtle games. The solidity of his figures and his emphasis on movement gave his work a strong affinity with that of Bernard Meninsky, one of his teachers, while with Josef Herman he shared an interest in people at work and the rhythm of their bodies, echoed by shapes in the surrounding landscape.

These paintings and drawings from the mid-Forties to the mid-Fifties have a pleasing directness and convey his love of landscape in the luscious blues, vivid ochres and greens of the Mediterranean. Kestelman's peasants and fishermen busy themselves with everyday tasks: digging the land, mending nets and tending flocks. There is a reaffirmation of humanity and life in all these paintings, but they are never sentimental.

In Kestelman's paintings from the late Fifties to the early Sixties a gradual change is discernible: the landscapes tend more and more to abstract shapes and patterns, but, curiously, there is always some lingering reference to things representational.

Morris Kestelman's first exhibition at the Boundary Gallery in London in 1989 was also the first time his early figurative and later abstract endeavours were hung together under the same roof. This juxtaposition clearly showed that his changing style followed a harmonious and almost inevitable development. Certain features remained constant: the dramatic use of sensuous and vivid colours and a powerful drive to distil the essence of life.

What happened, as Kestelman himself said, was that he came to the end of his figurative vocabulary. His abstract compositions were always carefully planned and within a narrow range of warm colours. Texture assumed a new importance, with powerful brushwork and several layers of thinly applied paint, thereby creating a strong sense of depth.

In their expressive distortions and superimposed images his abstract paintings contain echoes of his work as a student in the Twenties. In fact what made Kestelman such an interesting and good artist was that he never stopped experimenting.

Morris Kestelman had an inauspicious start for an artist - his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and he was brought up in the Jewish East End of London. He always stood well outside English tradition and could be best described as a true European both as an artist and a person.

In 1922 he gained a scholarship to the Central School of Art where he first met Bernard Meninsky, who taught him everything he knew about drawing; and later the teacher/student relationship developed into a firm friendship. It was through Meninsky that Kestelman got involved with the avant-garde London Group - he helped organise their 1926 exhibition in which Epstein, Bomberg, Matthew Smith, Sickert, Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell all took part. He was elected to the group in 1951.

Among his fellow students were Barnett Freedman, James Fitton and the illustrator James Boswell. Among his teachers were William Roberts and A.S. Hartrick, who had known Van Gogh and Cezanne and who was perhaps responsible for awakening Kestelman's passion for French painting and for France herself which - except for the war years - he visited annually for extended periods from 1930 onwards. During his first visit he stayed in the same studio as Chaim Soutine had many years earlier, in Cagnes- sur-Mer.

Kestelman's art training continued at the Royal College of Art, where his interest in theatre and costume design was aroused. His first attempt in this field was for The Magic Flute, performed at Birkbeck College in 1929. His next theatrical venture, to do the sets for Carmen at Sadler's Wells in 1940, was at the invitation of Tyrone Guthrie. After the war he designed a number of productions at the Old Vic including Richard III starring Laurence Olivier.

Another aspect of his theatre work came about in 1937 when he was commissioned by Noel Carrington to illustrate a book on the circus. In a typically thorough way, Kestelman watched as many performances of the Bertram Mills Circus as he could. The results are a series of beautifully finished, concise pastel drawings covering every facet of circus performances. These were sadly never published because of the outbreak of war. The originals - more than a hundred of them, and Kestelman's best-selling works - are all dispersed. Last year the Boundary Gallery published four selected circus images in a limited edition print for his 92nd birthday.

During the war he applied himself with the same thoroughness to his studies of work in an aircraft repair factory; the resulting drawings are comparable to Henry Moore's Tube shelter sleepers.

Kestelman was always sad that his abstract work never achieved the same response as his figurative work, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than the wonderful notice he received in the Royal Academy's illustrated catalogue last year, where it was stated that if one artist were to be be singled out from the whole exhibition, it would be Kestelman - his four paintings in the show were all abstract works!

However, Kestelman is unclassifiable in both periods of his career. He was a contemporary of John Craxton, John Minton, Michael Ayrton, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, yet Kestelman is less famous than any of them. He is one of the group of British artists who are not known sufficiently.

He was engaged in teaching throughout his working life, starting at Wimbledon School of Art and ending up as Head of Painting and Sculpture at the Central School of Art from 1951 to 1971. He exerted enormous influence on two generations of artists and was also greatly respected as an authority on painting. In 1956 he served with Herbert Read on the jury for the Guggenheim International Painting Award in the United States.

Though his teaching was full-time, and he was only able to paint during the holidays, such an arrangement allowed him to follow his own path, and to change style in the middle of his artistic career.

Kestelman only had nine solo exhibitions throughout his long 70-year career; all were at different galleries except the last three which took place at the Boundary Gallery, in 1989, 1993 and 1995. It took some considerable persuasion to convince him to agree to the first at my (then) new gallery. It was an enormous success. We developed a good working relationship as well as a warm friendship.

Morris Kestelman was a charming, erudite man. He was also incredibly well-read (in French as well as English) and his capacity to enjoy life was boundless except for the last 15 months, after the death of his wife. His philosophy of art had always been "to revel in the sunny side of life . . . heaven knows we all need the solace we can get from art."

Morris Kestelman, artist: born London 5 October 1905; Head of Painting and Sculpture School, Central School of Art 1951-71; RA 1996; married 1936 Dorothy Creagh (died 1997; one daughter); died London 15 June 1998.