Gwen John is one of my favorite artists.
She has the three characteristics I admire most in any artist or entertainer:
- She developed a technique that said a very great deal with what appeared to be very little effort.
- She sharpened her sensitivity and awareness so that she knew (or could take good guesses at) what was the simplest thing that needed to be said, the simplest thing she needed to ask her technique to accomplish.
- She had the strength-of-character to keep her self restrained, to trust her sensitivity and technique and the audience to carry the day, to accomplish art, to allow art to happen.
Jeffery Camp is an accomplished, contemporary British artist who knows Gwen John’s world well. This is Camp writing about John:
Augustus John learned a kind of sweeping line drawing from Tonks. It was swishy and not very useful. It was less slick than Tonks, but compared with Sickert’s workmanlike drawings, or the gentle poetry of his sister, Gwen, it was too polished to be good for anything, except its august boast. But Augustus was fond of his sister, and by his example showed exactly what she did not need. She went and found a greater ego in Rodin (an even faster draughtsman, and a great sculptor). She met Picasso, whose enormous ego had a brilliant pencil to go with it. Plainly, surrounded by so much macho puff and virtuosity, she was left only a little space for spiritual retreat: a tiny room, a chair, a softly filtering light falling on a table and a book, a stillness punctuated only by the silent paw-falls of her cats. Her technique for painting was frugal and sufficient and no different from the one she learned at the Slade. Flax canvas tacked to a stretcher was sized with warm rabbit skin glue, then coated with a half-chalk ground, left rather absorbent. She used only a few primary colors—the main one bright, the others less bright. They were mixed with half-and-half turpentine and oil with more oil added as the painting proceeded. She had been taught to paint tonally, sight-size. But what they could not teach was Gwen’s feather-light touch, the delicate crumbles, the pale colors, or the power of her spirit. (Have you ever tried to break a feather with a straight pull?) Gwen posed for Auguste Rodin. It is difficult to imagine him posing in Gwen’s cane chair!
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This is post #498.