Gwen John’s brother Augustus was better known until quite recently. Not only his but also the great sculptor, Rodin, with whom she studied, overshadowed her throughout the twentieth century. It was long believed that their influence on her was formative and perhaps overwhelming. Now she is correctly regarded as a distinctive artist in her own right.
Obviously, her early work was very much influenced by her brother. Perhaps that was a reason for relocating to Paris. There were many other reasons, of course. In the early years of the last century France was the place to be: not only Paris, but Normandy after the example of Monet and the Mediterranean coast following the footsteps of Picasso, Matisse and others. Gwen John accepted some of those influences but used them to her own ends. Some results are to be seen in the small but very fine exhibition at Pallant House, Chichester, for the next few weeks. It is well worth visiting.
Pallant House has its own permanent collection of great value, which is included in the ticket price for Gwen John. Tickets are valid until the venue closes so there is no need to remain there over the lunch break. However, it also has an excellent bistro-cafe, with tables in a sunny courtyard, so if no other plans occur that is the place to be – provided a table can be reserved.
Back to the art: there are drawings, watercolours and oils. They include street scenes of an almost bucolic nature, making it hard to believe that the French towns most of know from the late twentieth century were, until World War II, leisurely rural places with wagons more common than cars with most people travelling on foot.
A number of portraits are included in the exhibition. In these perhaps Augustus John’s influence might be expected, but in Gwen’s hands they became distinctive. Other women artists with whom she travelled to France are featured, as well one or two professional models. All are handled in a delicate manner in characteristicly muted tones. These tones foreshadow the late portraits of nuns at the convent where Gwen John studied Roman Catholic belief, to which she would eventually convert.
There are also sensitive studies of plants or flowers in vases, again in Gwen John’s own idiom, distinct from such as Winifred Nicholson who went for brighter colours. In all, it is a small exhibition but well worth visiting to appreciate a distinctive twentieth century artist who is now accorded well-deserved appreciation.