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To Be a Pilgrim

The critic and art historian Richard Cork chose exactly the right words when he said some years ago that Gwen John has a place in British art “much cherished by men and women alike.” The Welsh-born painter, who died in 1939 at sixty-three, is scarcely known here, and even at home her pictures are regularly seen only in provincial museums (the about-to-be-expanded Tate Gallery at Millbank, now called Tate Britain, may rectify this). But once viewers make contact with John’s generally small paintings, with their blearily beautiful colors and chalky, quivering surfaces—the great majority show a single, youngish woman, placed in a nearly bare setting—it’s hard to dislodge her from your mind. Although John lived in Paris or its environs from 1903 on, and was aware of the heady developments in the art scene of those years, she isn’t exactly thought of as a modernist—probably because she was untouched by Cubism. Yet she is one of the few British artists whose art has the qualities we associate not only with the modern movement but with the movement at its most heroic. As much, in her way, as Mondrian, say, or Pollock, she single-mindedly pushed to reduce her theme, her image of the lone woman, to its barest essentials.

John’s life has about it the note of one long divestment of the unnecessary, too. Although she was for years a secret lover of Rodin, and the once internationally famous painter, carouser, and skirt-chaser Augustus John was her slightly younger brother, Gwen John wished above all to lead, as she said, a life “in the shadow.” She wasn’t exactly a hermit, yet, believing somehow that contact with the world, on its terms, was more injurious than it was worth, she conducted herself as if on a sort of lay retreat. In the long run, I think, she paid a price for cloistering herself; there’s something becalmed and attenuated about John’s art all told. There is little question, though, that her best pictures are also at once highly delicate and fierce in nature, and this may be why, as Richard Cork says, John can elicit a sense of pride from every corner.

Sue Roe’s biography of the painter is the second in two decades, and it’s a tribute to John that while it is quite different from Susan Chitty’s 1981 volume it is equally engrossing. Reflecting her own wry, lean, and fast-paced prose, Chitty’s John convincingly emerged as a driving, arrogantly modest, secretive heroine. Although Roe, like Chitty, is a novelist, her writing here is a little bland and impersonal, and though she wants to handle most aspects of an artist’s life, her account of John’s work and historical significance doesn’t take us far beyond the standard treatments of the painter, studies by Cecily Langdale, Mary Taubman, and David Fraser Jenkins. There are also scattered boo-boos—the art writer M. Chamot was Mary, not a “he,” and so forth—yet Roe, it’s good to say, has no desire to pull her subject down. She gives us more information about John than Chitty did, and, less pronounced in her approach than Chitty, leaves us freer to make up our own minds about the artist. And John easily merits such a highly detailed, almost day-by-day account.

Gwen John was a wonderfully contradictory person. Willful and passionate, she was also capable of talking about relations between people, or even to a longstanding friend, with a blithe, hair-raising detachment. Like the bleakly romantic and ascetic, youthful hero of Georges Bernanos’s The Diary of a Country Priest (or of Robert Bresson’s movie of that novel, or, perhaps most, of Bresson’s A Man Escaped), John seemingly moved in a state of continual training, determined always to be in touch with her higher vocation. She did, actually, convert to Catholicism (in her late thirties). She powerfully identified with the lives of young female saints, and when she wasn’t filling her notebooks with details on the lives of great artists or on the rules of combining colors to get new ones, she was recording prayers and meditations. She kept returning to the desire to be an obedient “little” creature in God’s eyes.

Of a piece with her spiritual militancy was John’s striking indifference to ordinary levels of health, physical security, and comfort. Periodically throughout her life we hear of her spending nights in this or that forest (usually looking for a lost cat), or traveling great distances by foot. But then John could be plainly naive and innocent, too (this may help explain her early appreciation for Henri Rousseau), and, whether intentionally or not, quite funny. There are few of her recorded comments or quotes from her letters where her particular fey steeliness doesn’t charm or arrest us.

Talking about the need to be unencumbered by family ties, for instance, she wrote, “I think the family has had its day. We don’t go to Heaven in families now but one by one.” To a friend who thought John must have changed during the many years when they had lost touch, she replied, “I don’t think we change, but we disappear sometimes”—adding, “You disappeared a long time.” But her most charged remarks are invariably about her need to be isolated, as when she notes, “I should like to go and live somewhere where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason.” (Her spelling is spotty in French, too.)

In John’s fluency with words she has the same hold on us that Augus-tus does. Although his autobiographies, Chiaroscuro (1952) and Finishing Touches (1964), are ultimately disappointing—he tended to see his life as a series of ironic and sourish anecdotes—Augustus, taken sentence by sentence, was a highly dextrous writer. The scores of his letters that Michael Holroyd quotes in his witty and astute Augustus John* keep a reader attentive and wanting more; and the snippets of letters from Winifred and especially from Thornton John that Sue Roe quotes suggest that Gwen’s sister and other brother were verbally gifted, too. Augustus had a scholarly involvement with Romany, the language of European Gypsies, as well as being fluent in spoken and written French, while Gwen, who picked up French just by hearing it, even wrote poetry in the language.

Yet Gwen was also as fragile and frightened as she was headstrong. Devoted above all to her art, she was certain that, if she wasn’t a major player, she was at least in the same game as Seurat, Cézanne, or Picasso. On some level, though, she was hobbled by her perfectionism. While theoretically she wasn’t averse to exhibiting or selling, and works of hers had entered the Tate already by 1930, she had only a single one-person show in her life—in London, in 1926—and was characteristically found backing out of promises to deliver paintings. She said that to create a painting was so much sheer unrewarding labor, and most of her oils—she eventually made around 150—she apparently considered not good enough, consigning them to molder in stacks. About two thirds of her output became known only after her death. Reading about John’s life takes you on a trip that is almost as demoralizing as it is affecting and invigorating.

The centerpiece of John’s biography would seem to be, on a first take, her affair with Rodin. It is a story that, accompanied by a mass of extraordinary documentary material, enables us to revisit an extremely familiar historical period—Paris in the years before the First World War—in a fresh way. Finding herself in the city after a student escapade in which, along with a friend, she had planned initially to walk to Rome, John decided to support herself as an artist’s model; and in time she began working for Rodin, by then an international luminary. In short order she fell deeply in love with the sculptor. She was twenty-eight, he sixty-three when, in 1904, their relationship got underway. At the time, John landed an important assignment in his atelier: she was the lone figure in a commissioned piece in honor of Whistler, to be placed in London (and never completed by Rodin).

When she wasn’t at the sculptor’s studio, John was modeling for a number of mostly women artists, some of whom themselves modeled for Rodin. In these early years in Paris, her own art was largely scuttled. She lived, as her letters, written in French, attest, for her “master.” She was fiercely possessive of him, though she knew she was hardly the only woman this well-known (and unmarried) womanizer saw. John set herself up in the first of many Paris apartments, all of which were kept impeccably neat and bare, and stood in readiness for the always hoped-for visit from her lover. Their relationship was firstly physical. She was greedy for his touch and, though perhaps governessy in appearance, ready to raise a racket if she sensed Rodin ducking out on her. She was given to waiting for him at all hours outside his various studios or residences, and she didn’t miss a beat when he wanted to include a second model in the proceedings.

Rodin was also expected, by John, to quench her thirst for philosophy, poetry, ideas. In her voluminous correspondence—there are over a thousand letters in the Musée Rodin, in Paris—she presented herself to him as a simple girl desperate to learn more, and her pleas rarely sound disingenuous. Rodin, it is thought, was always a little frightened by her intensity. He was also caring of her, when his busy schedule permitted, admonishing John, who didn’t believe in doctors, to look after her health. He paid her rent, and their affair was only brought to an end with his death, in 1917, though by 1907 or so their period of greatest closeness had come to an end.

A long, clandestine, and letter-filled liaison with the artist who ushered a newly frank eroticism into mainstream art would seem guaranteed to be the centerpiece of John’s life. Yet her affair with Rodin forms, strangely, only a passing aspect of her biography. It comes across as merely the most noteworthy of a lifetime of very similar relationships. Intensely solitary as she was, John was rarely without someone (or, in the case of her Catholicism, some idea) with whom she was obsessed, or kept backing away from, or, via letters, inched toward cautiously. In her later years, for instance, she conceived a passion for a neighbor, a woman who was a fellow Catholic. John lavished on this person the same volume of intimate correspondence she had bestowed on Rodin, plus every Monday the put-upon and distinctly non-art-loving woman received a drawing from the artist—a work that would be tossed in a bin and never looked at again. There was also a priest John took a shine to, giving him at one point detailed instructions on where to meet her, deep in the local woods.

  1. *

    Two volumes, London: Heinemann, 1976; reissued in a single edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.

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