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November 09, 2004

Gwen John and Augustus John at Tate Britain

Posted by Christie Davies

Gwen John and Augustus John

Tate Britain, London
29th September 2004 - 9th January 2005
Daily 10am - 5.50pm

National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff, South Wales
12th February - 15th May 2005
Tuesday to Sunday 10am - 5pm

The exhibition at the Tate Britain of the works of the sister and brother Gwen John and Augustus John provides a rewarding experience for the visitor but it is curious that Gwen John is there at all, let alone be the first named artist in the title. She was a talented artist and perceived as such in her own time but I doubt that anyone could recommend going to see an exhibition that only contained her work. She is but an appendage to her better-known brother Augustus John, O.M., R.A. Indeed one suspects that if she had been his brother rather than his sister she would not be in the exhibition at all.

Feminists have long resented that obvious fact that most, indeed nearly all, of the world's talented painters have been male. Germaine Greer was once in the library of the British Museum, as it then was, working on a book on women painters of genius. Her fellow antipodean Clive James saw her at work and said to her, "Well, Germs, at least it won't take long to complete". Whether or not the sacred silence of that great round room was then disturbed by an exchange of Australian colloquialisms I do not know. More generally feminists of both sexes have sought to push the claims of lesser female artists (or indeed mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, composers of music, architects or logicians) by falsely asserting that their sex was the reason for their lack of recognition rather than an absence of originality, insight and rigour. Given that these feminist views are still being promulgated, the visitor to the exhibition must feel uneasy lest somewhere behind it lurks this absurd proposition.

The organisers try to make a virtue out of Gwen John's limitations but it does not work. Her laborious pictures, many of them half-length female portraits often of friends or of her own room are drawn from a quiet, private realm but she is no Vermeer. She is said to bring out the melancholy of her sitters but what we see is their disengaged emptiness. Only once does she come alive, in her wonderfully vivid Autoportrait la lettre, where she holds in front of her one of the thousands of letters she wrote to her lover Auguste Rodin. There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn from this. After the man with whom she was passionately involved died, her tendency towards painting in subdued greyness intensified. There is an uninspired sameness about her work after her loss and when in its wake she converted to Catholicism.

Augustus John's work is more experimental and more varied. He deserves the continuing recognition given to him despite his at times theatrical and fantasy-ridden work. The worst of his fantasies was his obsession with gypsies whom he saw as an extension of his own irregular wandering life. Indeed he was president of the gypsy-lore society and at one time lived in a caravan on Dartmoor. He liked their sense of tight-knit community; he felt that this was missing from the modern world but was unable to see that his sense of isolation was a product of what he was and not of modernity. Field-Marshall Montgomery said of him in 1944 "Who is this chap? He drinks, he's dirty and I know there are women in the background". None of these things were true of Montgomery. Montgomery found community within institutions in a way that Augustus John could not.

Yet from Augustus John's travelling community nonsense emerged two telling artistic creations. One is Wandering Sinnte 1908-9, a charcoal study of a group of Piedmontese gypsies he had met in Normandy in 1906, shown huddled tightly round and illuminated by a fire. John himself (I think) sits to the side in a floppy sloppy Bohemian painter's hat rather like Ruskin in the shade watching labourers in the heat. The other is Dorelia, the mistress who with his wife's agreement had a half-share in his company, in gypsy clothes in Woman Smiling 1908-9. She has a cozening puzzling smile.

It is Augustus John's portraits of notables that may be of greatest interest to the visitor, from the early ones of W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis and William Nicholson to the later paintings of the blue-eyed T.E. Lawrence and the sombre Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. There is a peculiar darkness about the earlier faces in their hair, eyes and eighteen-hundred hours stubble. Even Dorelia it has to be said can look rather putty-faced. Yeats was angry and said that John had made him look like a "sheer tinker, drunken, unpleasant and disreputable". No doubt the tinker loving Augustus projected himself onto Yeats. His masterpiece of this time is the large painting of William Nicholson of 1909, looking posed and mannered as a toff with fiercely parted slick black hair and a dark huge-lapelled overcoat to match. You can not tell whether Nicholson has a moustache or not. He is vividly placed against a light background a memorable painting.

By contrast John could not paint children, not even the many off-spring of his in effect bigamous household. They all come out as sentimental blobs and this is equally true of the larger works he did for Hugh Lane's walls. The lone successful exception is his painting of Dorelia with his son by his wife after his wife had died in childbirth, David and Dorelia in Normandy 1908. Perhaps it is because the figures are part of a Normandy landscape, part of a merging assemblage of colours and lack any distinct personal appearance that it succeeds.

His later portraits when he had become an established artist who received official commissions have been criticised but are masterly even when, as with those of Villiers David or Lady Ottoline Morel, they are said not to have resembled the sitter. The large "introspective and preoccupied" portrait of Lord Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, 1920-44 thinking of the British economy he had helped to destroy is almost enough to make one a Keynesian.

It is well worth the walk from a distant underground station to the Tate Britain to see this exhibition. It will appeal even more to the Welsh when the exhibition moves to in Cardiff. We all know Dr Fagan's gibe that "The Welsh are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture". Everything in Wales that is beautiful was either created by the English or by God. However, with the return of Augustus John, Wales will regain the artistic pre-eminence it enjoyed when Stonehenge emerged from the Presceli Mountains.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of the forthcoming Dewi the Dragon, to be published in 2005.

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