'A corner of the artist's room', 1907, Gwendolen Mary John (Photo by National Museum & Galleries of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Thoughtful delicacy and austere introspection

An exhibition of the art of Gwen John secures her legacy

Artillery Row On Art

“Fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John’s brother.” Thus declared Augustus John, one of the most renowned British artists of the early 20th century, sufficiently esteemed to make the cover of Time magazine in 1928. He died in 1961, with his prediction seemingly coming true in the 21st century. This is not simply a matter of our modern age avowing a preference for female artists over dead white male ones; Gwen John (1876–1939) is the better artist of the two and by quite some margin. Certainly, her reflective taste and restraint are better suited to a less flamboyant era.

Compare the siblings’ portraits circa 1903–04 of Dorelia McNeill, Augustus’ common-law wife and model for both brother and sister: Augustus’ version, with the model holding a posy of flowers, is frankly rather naff, barely pedestrian and possibly even horrible — a post-Victorian hangover (in both senses). Gwen’s, Dorelia in a Black Dress, c.1903–04, on the other hand, has learnt from Whistler (as she did in real life, attending his academy in Paris) to offer a realistic and engaging painting of far superior quality and maturity. It is almost as if she were working in conscious opposition to her younger brother’s vibrant and arguably cloyingly sentimental and melodramatic style; for Gwen, it was more about thoughtful moderation and delicacy, but without the slightest taint of tweeness. If that meant she could never match the commercial success of Augustus, so be it, for she was not a woman to compromise on either life or art.

The wonderful current retrospective in Bath, following on in reduced form from Pallant House in Chichester, makes Augustus’ prediction come true. The curator of the exhibitions, Alicia Foster, has further advanced Gwen’s cause with a splendid and deservedly well-received new biography of the artist, arguing that the old image of the introverted and reclusive painter should be tempered with a more socially engaged one. That is slightly more contentious — Gwen John was obsessed with the solitary interior — but the shows have certainly raised her profile to new and deserved heights.

The exhibition is sensibly arranged in approximate chronological order. This has an immediate and striking impact. The very first painting encountered, from c.1896–97, is the fine Landscape at Tenby with Figures, an apposite acknowledgement of her West Wales origins. Bright sunlight bathes the harbour and town, whilst a dark foreground is dominated by a pair walking together: a pensive, downward-looking mother and a young child gazing expectantly up towards her. It’s rare for sunlight (especially outdoor sunlight) to feature in John’s paintings; hereafter, we are almost exclusively contained inside. This is loaded with meaning: “As to whether I have anything worth expressing,” she wrote, “I may never have anything to express except this desire for a more interior life.” Yes, there are plenty of glimpses of the outside world through windows, but these are devoid of detail and solidity, reinforcing the importance of the interior. With that internalisation, distanced from outside light, comes John’s distinctive and characteristic muted palette: an always beautiful choice of colours matted down to an appealing, calm tone, largely eschewing distracting contrasts.

It is frugal, fragile and yet fortifying; a refuge, with a deep sense of calm

The “poster” image of the exhibition is well-chosen, as it is surely a highlight: A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, c.1907–09. This captures the essence of John as an artist of the interior. There are clear nods to 17th century Dutch works and more recent artists (John was not shy about adapting ideas). With its wicker chair and sparse contents siding the attic window, it is frugal, fragile and yet fortifying; a refuge, with a deep sense of calm pervading the work beautifully. What are we to make of the artist from this beautiful painting? At the time, she wrote that she was “a small piece of suffering and desire”; the exhibition and Foster’s book would claim that such works also mark out her independence. An appeal of John is that, like her paintings, she is enigmatic: both insecure and needy, as seen in her passionate relationship with the world-famous sculptor, Rodin (she sat as his model); but also entirely confident in the quality of her own work and its future resonance, declaring: “I think that I will count because I am patient and recueillie (contemplative).”

Portraits dominate. In addition to the one of Dorelia discussed above (and of three cats, to which one will respond as per one’s feelings towards felines), we have A Lady Reading, (1909–11), which contains the same wicker chair as seen in the above painting, and the cat portraits on the wall behind, and examples from rightly celebrated series: of nuns, including the 18th century Mère Poussepin, based on blurry, cheap, second-hand prayer cards (John converted to Catholicism in later life); of the deeply affecting Girl in a Blue Dress (1914–15) and the famous, vulnerable The Convalescent (c.1923-25).

Throughout this absorbing, almost ethereal exhibition, there is everywhere John’s patience, stillness and quiet intensity, underlining her austere introspection: “People are like shadows to me and I am like a shadow.”

The exhibition comes with some impressive added value in the shape of sculptures and drawings by Rodin and Bonnard, with fine canvases from Vuillard and Hammershøi. The physical limitation of The Holburne’s exhibition space has meant a reduction of the show as displayed at Pallant House in Chichester prior to arriving in Bath. Noticeably absent is the essential Self-Portrait with a Letter, c.1907-09; again, not an original theme (one thinks automatically of Vermeer), but the noiseless pensiveness of the face seems to reflect the same features of her art. Nonetheless, there are still over fifty pieces of work to be enjoyed here, and the smaller scale of John’s paintings and drawings are well suited to The Holburne’s more intimate viewing experience. Yes, there are some impressive works that have not made the transition, but most of the important ones have, allowing visitors to experience a deeply satisfying celebration of Gwen John’s work — one that has proved her brother to be right.

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris runs until 24 April, 2024.

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