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Zing Tsjeng | Encounters with Gwen John
[ Artist in Focus, Stories )
Zing Tsjeng, author of Forgotten Women, asks why Gwen John is not better known.
As the author of a book series called Forgotten Women, I’m haunted by all the women I couldn’t fit into the book – both the ones I knew about and the ones I didn’t. One of the best things about writing the books in the intervening years is watching some of those featured get dusted off and placed back in the historical record, where they belonged all along – Hilma af Klimt rightly exhibited next to Piet Mondrian at the Tate, for instance. I’m not so big-headed as to think I had anything to do with it, but it’s a little like hearing one of your favourite bands come on while you’re watching the telly – a lovely surprise, for sure, but coupled with a tinge of “what took them so long?” annoyance.
That’s where I started with the Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris exhibition. I’d not heard of Gwen John before and, like with all women who could have technically been in Forgotten Women, if it weren’t for the practicalities of traversing most of history and fitting in almost 200 biographical profiles into a single anthology, her name was accompanied by my usual vague sense of panic, but also intrigue. How had I missed her while writing Forgotten Women: The Artists? Why hadn’t I heard more about her? But also: why hasn’t everyone?
Gwen John, A Nun With Hands Folded on a Book, Charcoal on grey paper, The Trustees of the British Museum.
She painted several nuns and drew my favourite, A Nun With Hands Folded on a Book, featuring a sister with a wicked grin and a twinkle in her eye, even as her hands are folded primly in repose. Lots of women – mainly women, in fact, with pale milkfed complexions and messy hair, who alternately look downwards or stare defiantly outwards. And of course, cats (more on this later).
As it is with most talented women artists of her generation and earlier, most of her biography is conventionally and frustratingly bookended by men: her brother Augustus John, also an artist, and her sometime lover Rodin.
But somehow worse is how her brother, unintentionally or not, perpetuated the narrative that John was somehow a quiveringly shy, reclusive hermit, when her art suggests anything but. Instead, it suggests an aliveness, an ability to see deeply and truly that only arises out of those who are alert and attuned to what is happening around them. “Hermit with a rich inner life” makes me think of witchy women who believe in fairies – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but it’s laughable how little of Gwen John there is in that conception. If anything else, her art suggests someone who is the exact opposite: an artist who is perfectly grounded in the world around her, interested and invested in the world as it is, not as she – or anybody else – wants it to be or would like it to be pictured.
(Left) Augustus John, Bliss – Portrait of Dorelia McNeill, c.1903, Oil on canvas, Private Collection.
(Right) Gwen John, Dorelia in a Black Dress, 1903-4, Oil on canvas, 73 x 48.9 cm, Tate: Presented by the Trustees of the Duveen Paintings Fund 1949, Tate.
She paints Chloe Boughton-Leigh and Dorelia McNeill mid-glance in her portraits of them. Their gaze is withholding, almost as if they are resisting being captured on canvas – they stare out as if assessing us, the viewer. Do we deserve to meet their eyes? Do we deserve to know them, these women with interior lives that are hinted at by their dress, their manner, the way they sit and almost rudely rebuke our gaze?
Still, there’s a fungible intimacy to all these paintings in the blotchy wrinkles of their hands, the tendrils of their hair, so lovingly rendered in their dishevelment. Compare that to the portrait of Dorelia by Gwen’s brother Augustus, who was Dorelia’s lover and the father of her children, which is hung at Pallant House Gallery quite archly next to Gwen’s Dorelia looms out of the frame, her hair turned into an unflattering quiff that makes her look like a cross between Caravaggio’s Medusa and a Mills and Boon heroine. She comes off a little shy, but the lurid pink of her cheeks and the heave of her breasts screams yes, I am available – to be looked at, if nothing else.
Gwen John, Cat c.1904-8,Graphite and watercolour on paper, Tate.
Gwen John’s portrait, on the other hand, makes it clear this is a woman who makes no such guarantees. It’s the difference, I think, between someone posing for a picture and being Facetuned into a perfect feminine beauty and someone who has been offhandedly photographed by a friend who simply knows them very well and has seen them on both good days and bad.
And of course, that’s before you get onto her paintings of cats – although I fear that as a dog person, I am perhaps not so qualified to judge these felines, other than to say that these are some of the finest cats I’ve seen in art – somehow capturing an essential feline spirit that happens to be very adorable and yet retaining their fluid, alert wildness that, as a dog person, I will reluctantly admit that not many dogs possess.
Gwen John, Self-portrait nude, c. 1909, Pencil and gouache on paper, Private Collection, Courtesy of Patrick Bourne and Co., London.
This isn’t to say that John isn’t considering aesthetic form or making active choices about how to present life. In the different versions of The Seated Woman (The Convalescent), a young sitter reads different versions of a book, objects on the side table – an empty plate, a closed book, a pink teacup – swapped in and out. You can sense John working out the painting in her head: does the pink cup anchor the piece or does it detract? Does it pick up the blush of the sitter’s cheek? Does the strand of hair brushing a cheek mirror the rich dark binding of this book?
But it’s the nude self-portrait from around 1909 that I think of most, of John sketching herself and her proud thatch of pubes, feet planted firmly on the floor, the way a farmer stands on their land. It reminded me of how women on my Instagram feed pose nowadays- one foot in front, heel arched and flexed to maximise leg-lengthening potential – and it made me feel a little sad. It’s so ingrained now, even among myself and my friends, that we now do this without thinking in pictures. It made me feel envious of John’s confidence in her own naturalness, in her art. This is how I stand; this is how I am. Solid. Sensible. Super natural.
Zing Tsjeng is a journalist, editor, writer and presenter. She is the VICE Editor-in-Chief and the writer of a four-book series Forgotten Women, which explores the untold stories of inspiring women who have been marginalised in history. Follow her on Instagram and X (Twitter).