Philobiblon: Gwen John, adventurer

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Gwen John, adventurer

To the Tate Britain for the Gwen John and Augustus John exhibition, much and justly praised, for its art and its social documentation.

He was, of course, much the better known and regarded during their lifetimes - all sorts of extravagant praise was heaped on him (no doubt to his detriment), but to my eyes, while he could certainly draw, most of his paintings are no better than local "art show and fete" jobs. (He is support for the theory, which I learnt about here, that technical skills are not necessarily good for an artist at the start of their career.)

She, however, from quite early on, was striving towards the intellectually original and technically perfect, as is now being recognised.

It seems odd in some ways, that what she arrived at was small, "domestic", self-contained scenes, often described as very prim and "womanly", while she was actually living a life of almost total freedom. She was a model for and lover of Rodin, and in her adult life always lived alone, by choice, supporting herself by her art and her nude modelling for artists. (Even today many still find this desire to live alone odd; I know I'm regularly told so!)

A review of the exhibition can be found here.

I was unable to resist the biog in the bookshop (Gwen John, a life, by Sue Roe, Vintage, 2002), an author who must have had a wonderful job, since huge quantities of her letters and those of her circle survive.

One of her earliest oils was of Mrs Atkinson, the cleaning lady. "She used to greet her affectionately with a kiss, shocking Edna Waugh's sister Rosa into ... 'All barriers of differing class and occupation were silently shattered by the sight of that simple act.' (p. 21)

She and Dorelia, her brother's mistress, set out together to walk to Rome. "Augustus ... thought they should pack a pistol. But Gwen would not listen 'she never did.' They set off that August 'carrying a minimum of belongings and a great deal of painting equipment'. ... They began the long walk up the River Garonne ... Gwen sent home evocative accounts of their journey, lyrical descriptions of the evening light along the west coast of rural France; incidents involving the locals and bizarre, nocturnal adventure. In the villages they drew the locals for a few centimes ... They lived on bread, grapes and beer, and spent their time fending off strange men who tried to take them on detours." (p. 38) This, for a solicitor's daughter in 1903 (albeit one who had a relatively unconventional, motherless childhood) is amazing stuff!

The painting she did of Dorelia, entitled "The Student", after they had settled briefly in Toulouse, is one of the finest of her early works. They didn't make it to Rome, however; but headed instead for Paris (probably because of a man Dorelia had met, although Gwen later helped get her back for her brother.)

A collection of her work can be found here.


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