Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition. It places this early 20th century British female artist and her work in the context of her life and times. Gwen John’s works are filled with restraint – an innate stillness, luminosity, and insight. Her paintings are beautiful and arresting.
The exhibition illustrates how Gwen John was influenced by her male contemporaries and yet her paintings stand apart, giving voice to an independent, modern woman’s view of the world. So many exhibitions today make assumptions about the knowledge and understanding that the viewer brings under the excuse of ‘letting the pictures speak for themselves’ but this existentialist approach neglects the importance of narrative, time and place, which enhance our understanding of an artist and their work. The narrative which accompanies Gwen John: Art and Life is superb and refreshing. This chronological exhibition traces Gwen John’s forty year career in the context of her time in London and Paris.
She was tutored by Henry Tonks and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After a time at the Slade, she moved to Paris in 1904 where she would remain throughout her career. Gwen John had a ten year affair with the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. His influence blessed her with a fluidity and sureness of line. From 1904 her intimate life centred on Rodin. Her profound and overwhelming experience of sexual desire and love for him was given explicit voice in her writing but not in her art. She wrote extensively to Rodin, hence the poignancy of her pencil and watercolour study, Autoportrait à la Lettre, which she painted for her lover.
Her relationships with contemporary women artists of the time including Mary Constance Lloyd, Ida Nettleship, Ursula Tyrwhitt and others are also explored. Gwen John’s paintings focussed almost exclusively on women and interiors. The similarities between Gwen John’s and Édouard Vuillard’s work is often commented on, particularly in relation to their beautifully observed and articulated attention to tone. Her oil, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris at first seems intimate and personal to her but paradoxically it is influenced by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi who knew Ida Nettleship’s family in London.
Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris runs until 8th October 2023. The beauty of her painting and insight is amplified by the quality of this exhibition’s narrative which eloquently describes the importance of relationship and place.