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…

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