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.
But it’s hard not to be struck by the way John’s existence had to do primarily with three larger-than-life men. Before Auguste Rodin, there was, of course, Augustus John. Roe doesn’t make much of him, yet he could never have been far from Gwen’s thoughts. Her desire not to be under his thumb was the reason she chose to live abroad in the first place, and with his renown (or notoriety) growing all through Gwen’s life, Augustus can only have been a constant reminder of why she continued to be an expatriate. Onerous as he was on some level, he had little but good wishes for Gwen, drumming up interest in her work, paving the way for her rare late visit to England, yet careful never to overwhelm her. She and her work together were one of the few areas in his life where he was wholehearted—where his feelings and opinions weren’t straw men, to be blown away by a gust of his sardonic, self-hating hot air.
Gwen may have had an even greater admirer, though, in her patron, the American attorney and collector John Quinn (whom Roe inexplicably calls a “dealer” a few times). Their relationship wasn’t physical but, from Quinn’s point of view, at least, it may have had some of the elements of an affair. Quinn’s introduction to John’s work came in 1910, through Augustus, whose work Quinn was then collecting. Quinn eventually tired of Augustus’s pictures, but Gwen’s never stopped exciting him. He eagerly purchased seemingly any painting or drawing she sent him. He put her on a stipend, and, in his frequent letters, both carefully and warmly praised her pictures and conveyed the impact her work was having on artists in New York.
Quinn allowed John to maintain the monastic note she wished for her life while at the same time having, at a distance, where she needn’t be bothered by anxiety-provoking details, a budding career. It couldn’t have hurt that, all the while he was supporting her, Quinn was building one of the finest of all the early collections of modern art. Before he was through he would own Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, Picasso’s portrait of Wilhelm Uhde, and signal works by Brancusi, Cézanne, and Matisse, among much else. John, of course, was not one to let Quinn’s attentions go to her head. When, for instance, he was trying to have her send some paintings for New York’s 1913 Armory Show, and cabled her with the suggestion “FOUR (OR THREE) GWEN JOHN,” she wired back “ONE GWEN JOHN.” Well over a decade went by before they met. And they managed, in the end, to have been in each other’s company on only a few occasions, in Paris, when Quinn, still in his fifties, died in 1924.
John had one true theme. It was the single female sitter, generally seen in three-quarter view (or from the thigh area up), and she arrived at it right off the bat, in two self-portraits done by the time she was in her middle twenties. They lay out the promise and the ground rules of all the significant work she would do thereafter. In the first, the Self-Portrait of circa 1899, she’s a commanding presence who, hand on hip, seems to have just slipped sideways into the picture’s space, and can barely be contained by it. In the later, smaller Self-Portrait of 1902, she looks out diffidently—or is it coolly?—and is set, or trapped, in the dead center of the empty space.
The pictures show John to be keenly aware already of the nuance of placement, a hallmark of her later work. What’s fascinating about the self-portraits, though, is the way, taken together, they show John, as it were, moving in reverse. The earlier painting (in London’s National Portrait Gallery) has a frame-bursting monumentality. There are few self-portraits by male artists of the time where we feel such genuine self-confidence. In the later painting, though (in the Tate), John has reined in that energy. Looking at the pictures in light of what we know would become her values, we can see that she is already wanting to think of herself as a small, self-contained, stoical, unpresuming entity. She even appears younger and simpler in the later work. Going from one image to the next, we look at an unobvious strategy in the making.
As John slowly progressed from the self-portraits, she painted a small number of first-rate pictures of women in the same somewhat traditional manner, with clear-cut effects of light and shadow. Then, around 1914, after some ten years of sporadic work, she came upon what might be called her mature style. Still committed to the image of a single woman, she was now less a portraitist of specific people than the maker of a kind of painting whose subject was the young, anonymous female model. To do it, she worked with a radically different sense of a picture’s color, its surface, and how much detail to include. She now saw color in muted tones, each of which worked strictly in concert with the others. She fashioned a painting where sitter and background wall and any extra bits, whether a distant window or a table with flowers up front, all have the same weight, or importance, and the same hazy, porous—yet sensuous—texture.
In these John paintings, the oil appears to have been applied in countless little pats. When the brushwork is more assertive, when she puts down small slablike lines that define, say, the shadowy areas in a model’s clothes, a viewer’s sense of an overall pleasing dry viscosity is somehow only enhanced. We take in such a John as if it were a breathing, quietly buzzing world; we imagine that were we to look at any part of a given picture with a magnifying glass we’d find the innumerable particles that make it up slowly moving this way and that.
Yet what gives these and, really, all John’s figure paintings their enduring strength is the way we feel she has made some fundamental psychological contact with the sitter. This is the case even when her models are reading, or looking away from us. Her young women are proud, sulky, dreamy, or sullen, and yet never blatantly so, as John’s minor-chord colors—her grayed blues, dulled lavenders, overcast pinks, oystery whites—invariably seem created from some secret recipe. (She went to town with grays and browns.) When she painted nuns or a young woman who looks upward and wears a romantic cloak, in a picture called The Pilgrim, we might expect a sanctimoniousness to creep in, but it doesn’t. (Only in a single work, of a girl praying, does John lose us in what reads like a piece of programmatic art.) One of her livelier images is of an improbably smiling mother superior, while one of John’s strongest pictures shows a young nun who regards us warily with high-set, tiny eyes.
John eventually tried going beyond her images of young women. There are a few interiors of the rooms she lived in and occasional table-top still lifes of flowers, pots, or a doll. She painted some views of the trees and roadways near where she eventually lived in Meudon, just outside Paris. There are, too, great numbers of works on paper of little girls or of nuns in church, seen usually from the rear. But none of these pictures is in the same league as her paintings of women; they have at best the weight of trial runs. She achieves in them all too effectively the self-effacement she was groping for. This doesn’t mean that they’re charmless. Her few painted empty interiors are like sweet, misty Vuillards, and her watercolors and gouaches of figures in church represent a tack all her own. There’s a comic perception of life in them, a note that barely surfaces in John’s paintings of women. John was trying to see, with the images of girls and nuns at their devotions, how far she could abbreviate forms and momentarily deceive the viewer’s eye. She turns the girls’ faces, hats, and cloaks, and the nuns’ habits, and the simple wood church chairs, into a flat, almost abstract world of interconnecting shapes.
It’s clear that had John continued painting she would have become increasingly abstract. At least one of her paintings of a Paris interior, a balancing act of so many different tones of gray, shows her to have been a heartbeat away from abstraction. Her very last image, of a woman seen sideways on a train or bus, where she wears a hat that comes down over almost all of her face, shows John to have made virtually a full revolution in her work, for here we see no person at all, just a cloche hat that has taken over a face. But the picture isn’t successful. Like many of the little, pale wash drawings of girls in church, it is ultimately coy, bloodless.
Altogether it doesn’t come as a great surprise that John gave up painting in the late Twenties. Most of her work with real energy in it didn’t survive Quinn’s death in the middle of the Twenties. Even with her paintings of young women she seems to have exhausted her true interest in the theme long before she stopped making such images. For there isn’t a great sense of variety in these, her signature works. In most of them, she is saying the same thing—literally so. Many of her pictures are replicas. The Convalescent, for example, an image of a thin, dark-haired girl reading a book, exists in some ten versions, with the subtlest change from example to example. And among John’s drawings there are a number which show her repeating, on the same page, the exact same image—say, of two girls standing—so many times as to be disturbing. Susan Chitty reports John redoing one image over seven hundred times, using some seventy sheets to do it.
Looking at these pages, we’re given the unpleasant sense of having entered some never-to-be-fathomed terrain of the artist’s mind. There may be a decorative quality to these repeated images; we can also think of John as a kind of early maker of “serial images.” Yet we could as easily be looking at the work of a person who spent years in an institution. No one has a clue about why she filled up sheets this way. It’s as though the urge on her part that made her so limit her art has here commandeered her spirit. We look at an artist helplessly in the grip of the part of her mind that is also responsible for her finest work.
In the Forties, Augustus John famously said that in fifty years he would only be known as the brother of Gwen John. His statement is often quoted in the writing on both artists, the point being that, if he exaggerated the case, he wasn’t far from the mark. For decades now, Augustus has, as predicted, failed to make the roll call of significant twentieth-century British art, though Gwen’s place there has long been secure. His writing about her indicates that he fully understood the difference between his work and his sister’s. He saw that her art had about it exactly what his lacked. She couldn’t help but perfect her theme; whereas Augustus’s chief problem was that he couldn’t sustain a belief in anything, particularly in his own work, which has a startling lack of inner consistency.
Prompted by this second full-fledged telling of Gwen John’s life, though, and by looking at pictures by them both, I wondered whether the time hadn’t come to think again about the relative significance of the two painters. It’s not that each one’s story can only be completed by the other. It’s right that Augustus is backstage in Roe’s and Chitty’s biographies of Gwen, and that she is a subsidiary figure in Holroyd’s biography of Augustus. Cecily Langdale speaks for many, no doubt, when she says that comparisons between the two “probably would not be made were it not for the accident of their birth.” Yet it shouldn’t be lost sight of that fundamentally the two artists had the same talent. They were portraitists with the same strong suit: catching the most precise and evanescent expressions of their sitters. They both found it difficult to do anything else. Augustus’s grand group scenes, and even his often lovely Fauvish landscapes with figures, are somehow larkish, much as Gwen’s landscape oils or her watercolors that furtively catch this or that aspect of French life are a little inconsequential. They both found it difficult to finish even the portraits that represented the best of them.
Making a case for Augustus is no easy matter. His pictures can look like the work of twelve different hands, and among them are some of the more gruesomely caricatural (when not sheerly unfelt or anonymous) of all twentieth-century portraits, by artists of any nationality. Yet there are also, whether among his painted, drawn, or etched images of individuals, a range of moods and textures, and a feeling for the variety of faces and emotions—for what might be called psychological color—that comes as an immense relief, that feels truly rejuvenating, after an immersion in his sister’s ever more unified, pared down, and constricting work. To take in his finest, freest images at that moment is to feel as if together the two Johns had all along been making one interdependent art. There’s no question that, of the two, it was Gwen who invented a new style, and that Augustus was shrewd to say that in time he would be known as Gwen John’s brother. But I hope she, in turn, in future estimations of her work, might be known, at least to a degree, as Augustus John’s sister.
November 29, 2001