2 July – 2 October 2016
This summer Pallant House Gallery presents a major exhibition on the life and art of British artist Christopher Wood (1901-1930). An important and influential figure in the British art world during the 1920s, Wood developed a ‘faux-naïve’ style as he navigated a path between the representational painting of the Edwardian era and the new style of abstraction of the 1930s. A celebration of the magnitude of the artist’s achievement in the ten years before his premature death, aged just 29, this comprehensive review explores the enduring paradox between the primitive and the sophisticated in Wood’s oeuvre.
Based on research into 10 years’ of letters between Wood and those close to him - his mother, Winifred Nicholson, and the gallerist Lucy Wertheim – the exhibition considers the factors at play in the development of this conflicted character, whose quest it was to become ‘the greatest painter that ever lived’. His individual approach was influenced by his creative friendship with the Nicholsons and the ‘discovery’ of the untrained artist Alfred Wallis. However it was also interpretations of the ‘primitive’ that he encountered first-hand in Paris amongst the Post-Impressionists, Cubists and Fauvists - thanks to his privileged position amongst the French avant-garde – that informed Wood's focus on a childlike way of seeing.
Early exposure to modern masterpieces during the early 1920s led Wood to realise that simplicity and naivety were at the root of modern art. Through particular reference to Paul Cezanne’s still life and figure paintings, Vincent Van Gogh’s Provencal landscapes, and Pablo Picasso’s Blue, Red and Rose periods - he assimilated and developed these characteristics, recasting elements of European modernism in paintings such as ‘The Card Players’ (1922) and his Self-portrait (1927) so that they appeared fresh and original.
It was Wood's relationship with figures such as Picasso and the painter-poet Jean Cocteau that led to an introduction to Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev's opulent productions were a creative outlet for his own homosexuality, echoing the free-spirited atmosphere of post-war Paris and featuring a young masculine ‘type' that fascinated Wood. In the exhibition Wood's unrealised set designs for Romeo and Juliet and an English Country Life as well as the impressive six part screen ‘Beach Scene with Bathers, Pier and Ships' (1925) will be given due attention, showing how this moment in his career resulted in a more refined and intuitive style.
Wood became increasingly aware that his excessive, ‘civilised’ lifestyle in Paris contradicted the ‘primitive’ aesthetic he aspired to. This was affirmed in 1926 when Wood met the British painters Ben and Winifred Nicholson, who had a modest approach to life and art that was arguably a better match for the purity he was seeking. ‘China Dogs in a St Ives Window’ (1926), once owned by Winifred Nicholson, was created before their first meeting, marking a milestone in the evolution of Wood’s individual style which developed further under the influence of the Nicholsons, with whom he worked side by side on landscapes in Cumbria.
During the 1920s the Nicholsons became the steering force behind the 7&5 Society, where they showcased the unsophisticated painting style they were pursuing with Wood. Their shared interest was cemented in 1928 after ‘discovering’ the untrained artist Alfred Wallis - a retired Cornish fisherman whom Wood subsequently visited daily - in St Ives. The combination of genuine naivety and authentic experience in Wallis’s work appealed to Wood, as did the method of painting from memory rather than observation. This relationship resulted in a number of harbour scenes and landscapes, such as ‘Porthmeor Beach’ (1928), that have a primal intensity reminiscent of the earlier influence of Van Gogh.
1929 was a pivotal year for Wood that brought him wider recognition – and a disturbing shift in his mind-set. He was making set and costume designs for the ballet Luna Park commissioned for Cochran’s Revue – on which the extraordinarily sinister painting ‘The Yellow Man’ (1930) was based. He also shared an exhibition with Ben Nicholson at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune in Paris. The exhibition at Pallant House Gallery reunites a number of works from this exhibition for the first time, including the revealing pair of paintings ‘The Little House by Night’ (1930) and ‘The Artist’s Cottage, Paris’ (1930) which demonstrate increasing conflict in Wood’s personal character.
The final rooms of the exhibition will feature selected paintings from Wood’s last two series made during trips to the district of Corniuaille in Brittany in the summers of 1929 and 1930. This includes an incredible body of work – over 40 paintings – produced by Wood during the final months of his life in Tréboul. Encouraged by the patronage and friendship of the gallerist Lucy Wernheim - letters from whom will be on display – he explored with great intensity the Celtic lineage which linked Cornwall and Brittany, as well as the local customs of the Breton people, from their religious contemplation to festive celebration. The paintings from this series – typified by vivid colour, an urgent application of paint, and guided by the notion of ‘going away’ that was central to European Primitivism – are widely considered his greatest achievement and represent a culmination of the simple, intuitive vision for which he strived throughout his career.
It was shortly after this time, in August 1930, that Wood returned to England and, battling still with the misuse of opium, he committed suicide at Salisbury train station aged just 29. In 1938, a posthumous survey of his work at Redfern Gallery, London – the first to bring together all his paintings - proved astonishingly popular, drawing over 50,000 visitors.
The last comprehensive review of Wood’s oeuvre was held at the Arts Council in 1979; since then his career has been examined in smaller ‘in-focus’ exhibitions or alongside that of his contemporaries, as in the recent exhibition ‘Art and Life’ at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Pallant House Gallery exhibition features over 80 works from public and private collections and is curated by Katy Norris, Curator at Pallant House Gallery. It is hoped that this detailed account of Wood’s creative output on both sides of the channel will shed new light on the development of this fascinating artist and turbulent figure in 20th century British culture.
The first fully illustrated account of the English painter Christopher Wood (1901-1930) will be published by Lund Humphries in July 2016 to coincide with the exhibition. This authoritative work by Katy Norris includes over 150 images, provides extensive visual analysis of individual paintings, set designs and drawings created by Wood in both Britain and France, bringing a fresh perspective to his unique artistic development on both sides of the Channel. Priced at £24.95 - available in the Pallant Bookshop.
About Pallant House Gallery: Located in the heart of historic Chichester on the south coast, Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of a Grade One Listed Queen-Anne townhouse and an award- winning contemporary extension, housing one of the most significant collections of Modern British art in the country. Widely acclaimed for its innovative temporary exhibitions and exemplary Learning and Community programme which has inclusion at its heart, the Gallery has won numerous awards since re-opening in 2006. www.pallant.org.uk.