Morris Kestelman RA (1905-1998), born in London’s East End to recent immigrants, at 17 won a scholarship to the Central School of Arts where he studied under Bernard Meninsky. He continued at the Royal College of Art for three years, where he developed an interest in the theatre. In 1929 he designed the decor for The Magic Flute for the Royal College of Music.
His first visit to France in 1931, produced works that resonate with French artists of the period and he continued to go to France every year except during the war. In 1937 he was commissioned by Noel Carrington for an illustrated book on the theme of circus. Due to the war, the book was never published but the pastels survived and four were published as a limited edition of 35 in 1996 by the Boundary Gallery.
His response to the Second World War was captured in a large painting: Why Hast Thou Forsaken Us? – a picture portraying the persecution of the Jews, featured in an exhibition organised by the Artists’ International Association in 1943, now in the Imperial War Museum. He also designed sets for productions at the Old Vic including Richard III with Lawrence Olivier and operas for Sadlers Wells.
In the 1940s he was elected a member of the London Group, the most respected avant garde movement of the time. In 1951 he was commissioned to paint murals for the Festival of Britain.
From 1951, for 20 years, he was Head of Painting and Sculpture at the Central School of Art. During this time he also served on the Jury for the Guggenheim International Painting Award with Herbert Read in the United States.
Kestelman is best known for his depictions of people at work, but from the mid 1950s, his style changed from mainly representational to abstract. This transition was totally organic and certain features of his work remain constant: the dramatic use of sensuous and vivid colours, strong composition and a powerful drive to distil the essence of life.
Kestelman only had nine solo shows during his lifetime. He remained active until the 1990s, when he was one of the invited artists for the Discerning Eye exhibition in 1995 and in 1996 became a Royal Academician. The Royal Academy selected four of his abstract works as favourite exhibits in 1997.
His works feature in many UK museums including, The Tate Gallery and the Imperial War Museum.