Gwen John (1876-1939), Dorelia in a Black Dress, c.1903-4, oil on canvas, 73 x 48.9 cm, Tate.
In 1911, living in Paris, Gwen John wrote in her diary, ‘I paint a good deal, but I don’t often get a picture done – that requires for me a very long time of a quiet mind, and never to think of ambition.’ While John’s art uses a subtle colour palette seemingly to replicate her own quietude – as demonstrated in Dorelia in a Black Dress – it is perhaps worthwhile to clarify what she meant by ‘ambition’. After all, she also wrote of her desire to become ‘God’s little artist.’ Whereas her older and successful brother Augustus lived a life that conformed to the notion of ‘bohemian genius’, dictated to the art-market; Gwen lived in pursuit of a moral ideal, cooped up in sparse lodgings in Paris (see Corner of the Artist’s Room) often chosen for her cats’ convenience (something I can completely sympathise with). For Gwen, fame/professionalism came at the cost of genius. It’s perhaps natural then that her interior life, quietly struggling for perfection, resulted in works that possess an aesthetic of simplification. This is art not of enumeration, but suggestion and atmosphere. There are no pronouncements or comment. Characterisation is not analytic. Instead, Gwen has a remarkable capacity for presenting humans as forms of energy. Peaceful, uncluttered, self-contained, ambivalent… if you want me I’ll be in room 1890 of Tate Britain. TA