Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris,
Pallant House Gallery,
Curated by Alicia Foster in partnership with Pallant House Gallery
Until October 8.
As curators and art historians work to redistribute glory that men historically monopolised, Pallant House Gallery’s latest major exhibition devotes itself to extracting Welsh-born artist Gwen John from beneath the shadow of her more worldly brother Augustus John.
The reductive version is that he dominated the art scene, married, and had affairs, while his solitary sister painted quiet, still women and focused on the interior life.
The reality was more complex. Gwen John could be self-effacing and reclusive, but also bold, certain of her talent and passionate.
“I cannot imagine why my vision will have some value in the world … and yet I know it will,” she wrote in a letter to Ursula Tyrwhitt, one of the many contemporaries featured alongside her at Pallant House.
Tyrwhitt, together with Gwen and Augustus, studied at London’s Slade School of Art at the end of the 19th-century, where unusually women were allowed to learn through life classes, and, in Augustus’s words, “in talent as well as in looks, the girls were supreme”.
One of the many problems was that if “the girls” married, they were typically forced to give up their art for domestic duties and child-bearing.
Augustus John’s wife, another art school friend Ida Nettleship, was no exception. Very little of her work remains, although this exhibition includes her “A Study of a Nude Male Figure”. The figure is not quite nude, as the Slade was not so progressive as to expose its female students to completely naked male models.
From art school, Gwen John set out for Paris and France. The country soon became her home, where she supported herself by becoming a model. Contradicting the image often imposed on her, she had no compunction in posing naked and, at her brother’s suggestion, offered her services as a model to Rodin, then the most famous sculptor in the world.
Among the many results is Gwen John’s portrait of herself, lips parted intriguingly, clutching a letter, which is the emblem of this exhibition. The letter has been interpreted as one of the many letters written during the affair she had with Rodin.
The relationship was a highlight of her life, but there were many other passionate friendships with both sexes.
With another artist friend Dorelia McNeil, Gwen John walked miles through France, sleeping rough and earning money from sketching and singing. Gwen John introduced Dorelia to her brother. She became his lover and part of a ménage à trois with Ida Nicholson John.
The contrast between the brother and sister artists is at its sharpest at the Pallant as their respective portraits of Dorelia are hung side by side.
Gwen John’s meticulous “Dorelia in a Black Dress” places the emphasis on her hands, crossed in front of her as she stares straight ahead, keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself, though one senses purpose.
Augustus John’s sweeping depiction is entitled “Bliss” and is an overt portrayal of the passion he felt. Her cheeks are flushed and, instead of a concealing black dress, she is wearing loose clothing and holding wildflowers.
The background is a blur of rustic colour, whereas Gwen John places her model in the corner of a room in keeping with an interest in depicting women indoors that the exhibition traces back to her student days and to Dutch interior portraiture.
Single women and girls whose innermost feelings are conveyed cryptically are overwhelmingly Gwen John’s subject to which she returns again and again.
In “The Convalescent,” painted just after World War One, a fine-featured girl sits quietly reading. She is echoing the fragile, convalescent state of a post-war world, but she is also an individual with private passions focused intently on whatever she is reading.
Just before the war, Gwen John had converted to Catholicism and nuns became her subject matter.
For those eager to know if it was a response to the end of her romance with Rodin, this exhibition will not satisfy. Biographical notes are kept to a terse summary and the closest we get to the private woman is a sight of her Au Bon Marché notebook in which she jotted down the train times to Dieppe in tiny handwriting.
We’re left to interpret the work for clues to Gwen John’s emotional or religious fervour.
For the convent in Meudon, the Parisian suburb where she lived, Gwen John was commissioned to paint the order’s founder Mère Poussepin, who lived from 1653-1744. She relied on a prayer card with a tiny image of the nun from an 18th-century oil painting and produced numerous images of a slightly smiling mother superior, one of which hangs in the Pallant’s exhibition.
Gwen John also depicted living nuns, and tells us she valued her “Portrait of a Young Nun”, featured alongside Mère Poussepin, for “something in the little face a little sulky or sad”.
For the 21st-century art historians assessing the worth Gwen John was certain she would have, it is an ability to imply depth. Her young nun is no stereotype, but a woman of feeling, on the cusp perhaps of regretting the life she might have lived and resigning herself to a life of contemplation.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.