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Paul Feiler: Acclaimed painter and teacher whose work moved into geometric abstraction


Paul Feiler was an émigré from Nazi Germany who enjoyed an influential career in West Country art education and became one of the most convincing proponents of abstract painting in Cornwall throughout the second half of the 20th century. The stark dichotomy between his early gestural landscape-derived painting and later hard-edged geometric mode echoed the very different circumstances of growing up in inter-war Germany and becoming a pioneering artist in postwar Britain.

Feiler was born in 1918 in Frankfurt-am-Main, the son of a medical professor. Art was encouraged within a liberal regime at home but after the rise of Hitler in 1933 Feiler was sent to school first in the Netherlands and then at Canford School, Dorset. In 1936 he enrolled at the Slade School while his father practised as a dentist in nearby Harley Street. Fellow Slade students like Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter, Adrian Ryan and Adrian Heath pointed to Feiler's future as an artist closely associated with the St Ives school, that loose grouping of abstract artists who extended the language of British landscape painting during the postwar period.

The passage from student to established artist was not entirely smooth. Interned on the Isle of Wight and then in Canada, Feiler returned to England in 1941. He taught at Eastbourne College for the rest of the war and in 1945 married the painter June Miles, who was responsible for taking him to Bristol. As well a having two daughters and a son between 1948 and 1952, Feiler established his teaching career in Bristol, where he joined the staff of the West of England College of Art.

Despite inevitable scrapes with the hidebound Bristol regime Feiler became head of the college in 1960, introducing Cornish colleagues like Peter Lanyon and Michael Canney to an increasing enterprising common room. The Cornish connection was enhanced by the proximity of the Bath Academy at Corsham Court, where many other St Ives painters taught under William Scott.

The paintings of the late 1940s, which allied naturalism to a strong Cezannian structure and plastic pictorial space, represented streets and back gardens around Clifton, where Feiler lived near the suspension bridge. A painting like Gasworks Bristol Harbour (1950) used the subject of looming industrial architecture with which to organise the picture surface in a way that anticipated Feiler's increasing preoccupation with architectonic devices and pure geometric abstraction. Although he did not reach the pure geometry of the late oeuvre until 1970 there was an implicit sense of compositional structure even in the thick palette-knifed or gestural paint handling of the foamy white, sky blue and granite grey of the classic coastal landscapes of the 1950s.

This was an obvious feature of Fields and Sea (1952), exhibited at his first and commercially successful solo exhibition with the Redfern Gallery London in 1959. In the slabs of thick paint and the poetic evocation of landscape motifs this work reflected the widespread influence at the time of the French painter Nicolas de Staël.

The sell-out Redfern debut provided the money to purchase a disused chapel at Kerris, near Penzance, which he would use as a living and working space for the rest of his life. He exhibited every two years at the Redfern during the 1950s, and two shows at the obelisk Gallery Washington, DC opened up an international reputation. The American connection led to several visits to the US, and in 1958 Mark Rothko visited Feiler at Kerris.

A successful decade came to an abrupt end when his 1959 Redfern show was a commercial failure: he did not exhibit there again until 1993, by which time his work had undergone a huge sea change. During the 1960s, therefore, Feiler was compelled to find new exhibiting channels and he enjoyed solo shows with the Grosvenor Gallery and New Vision Centre, before exhibiting with the Richard Demarco in Edinburgh and the Archer Gallery in London during the early 1970s.

Feiler's use of thick creamy pigment continued in a more controlled vein in the late 1960s. The "Orbis" and "Lunatis" series, reflecting his interest in the moon landings of 1969, posited circular forms within inert areas of white paint. A slow implied movement suggested lunar cycles while in the even more transitional works of the "Ambit" series the same slow movement represented a journey within to a spiritual centre. This effect was achieved through ordered patterns of diminishing squares, each meticulously painted with thin, even layers of colour. A German rationalism was perhaps at play recalling the "Homage to the Square" works of Josef Albers.

During the next 35 years Feiler refined these formats, the relativity of form and colour becoming a key component of expressive variety and effect. Purely abstract, these works were nevertheless capable of conjuring rich metaphor and illusion particularly to do with religion. Feiler visited shrines and places of mystery in Greece, Egypt and the Middle East throughout the later part of his career.

Feiler married again in 1970. Like his first wife, Catherine Armitage painted alongside him, at Kerris and after 1975 at Trewarveneth, a barn studio built by the late 19th century Newlyn School painter Stanhope Forbes and later used by Bryan Wynter. In 1974 the Feilers had twin boys. From that time until his retirement in 1983 Feiler continued part-time as head of painting at Bristol. He continued his investigation into calm, meditative arrangements of coloured squares and circles, whose mythological titles betrayed mystical intentions. Their iconic or shrine-like quality was enhanced by a later use of gold and silver leaf.

A determined, no-nonsense character, Feiler could come across as cold and distant. He was, however, loyal to colleagues, and his work had an integrity of purpose unaffected by fashion or ephemera. Renewed acquaintance with the Redfern Gallery after a three-year hiatus saw several solo shows and in 2002 "Connections". In 1995 Feiler was one of the first of the remaining postwar St Ives artists to enjoy a solo show, the appropriately titled "Form to Essence" at Tate, St Ives, confirming his position at the heart of the modern art movement in Cornwall.

Paul Feiler, painter and teacher: born Frankfurt-am-Main 30 April 1918; married 1945 June Miles (two daughters, one son), 1970 Catherine Armitage (two sons); died 8 July 2013.