`I paint a good deal, but I don't often get a picture done'

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THERE seems to be a little confusion about the name of Gwen John's cat. In fact, she owned a number; but one -- a female that looked ``white from the front and tabby from the back'' -- engaged her special affection and was painted numerous times. Mary Taubman, in her new monograph on the Welsh-born artist (Scolar Press, London; Cornell University in the United States), says it was known to Gwen John and her friends as ``Edgar Quinet.'' This was not with direct reference to the French historian but to the boulevard on which Gwen lived with Dorelia McNeill when they arrived in Paris in 1904. It was named in Quinet's honor.

Ms. Taubman quotes several mentions of the cat: one in a letter from a friend of Gwen in Zermatt, who wrote: ``Give my love to Edgar Quinet. Is he as troublesome as ever?''

He or rather she does seem to have been somewhat difficult. Gwen spent many traumatic hours searching for her when she disappeared. In one of Gwen's many letters to the sculptor Rodin (for whom she modeled and with whom she was passionately in love) she described her feelings about the cat: ``I know all her thoughts and needs, she tries to understand me, she understands what I say but she never obeys even when she wants to.''

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Gwen's watercolor drawings (and she left more than a hundred of cats) show ``Edgar Quinet's'' typically feline egocentricity inspiring her owner's devotion, yet perfectly indifferent to it, self-contained, secretive. In a poem Gwen refers, with some justification, to the cat's ``petite ^ame myst'erieuse.'' She tried to capture something of this strange inner life in her paintings, a number of which she sent to Rodin, but she said she never felt she had succeeded in showing what the cat was really like.

Susan Chitty, in her 1981 biography of Gwen John, writes about the same cat but as ``Tiger.'' She says: ``Tiger was not an easy model. At the sight of a pencil and paper she would start a game and become impossible to draw. She would only arrange herself when Gwen had given up and put on her hat to go out.''

In some ways, Gwen John has remained to the outside world as much of an enigma as her cat. But perhaps it is today's growing interest in the special qualities of women artists that has brought renewed recognition. (An exhibition of her works that ran recently at London's Barbican Centre is moving to Manchester, England, late this month and to the Yale Center for British Art early next year.) But a reassessment is deserved by any standard, not simply to redress the tendency to play down her achievement as ``merely women's art.''

She was quiet, almost secretive, about her aims and ambitions; her paintings often showed a repetitive interest in features of her private domesticity -- her rooms in Paris, herself (she was a potent self-portraitist), her close women friends, and her cat. In some ways her art can be seen to have roots in the ``interiors'' of 17th century Dutch painting.

But she was anti-bourgeois in attitude, and the apparent narrowness of her world looks now like a deliberate aesthetic choice. Her ``repetition'' of subjects had to do with concentration rather than a paucity of imagination or a conventionality of vision. She certainly believed in the expressiveness of strange forms and attitudes. Her quietness seems, both in her way of life and in the tonal harmonies of her painting, to be not some sort of self-effacement, but a recognition of the need for develo pment without external pressures. This attitude has been seen in many artists, both men and women. In her case it seems to have developed into an almost reclusive need, leading to a remarkable consistency and subjectivity.

In the catalog for the current retrospective, by Cecily Langdale and David Fraser Jenkins (Phaidon, Oxford), a letter is quoted in which Gwen John wrote: ``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 exhibitions.''

She was much less known and acknowledged during her lifetime than was her brother Augustus. As late as 1942 (two years after her passing) an editorial in the Burlington Magazine could refer to him as ``one of the greatest of living artists,'' while it was left to him, in the article printed under the editorial, to describe Gwen as ``the greatest woman artist of her age, or, as I think, of any other.''

Elsewhere, with a certain prophetic truth, he said he would eventually be known only as Gwen John's brother. The difference between their paintings is telling: his flourish and changeableness, his objective theatricality, is in some contrast to her interiority and obstinate steadiness. The word ``greatness'' seems irrelevant to the superiority of her art. A remark by the only collector who succeeded in patronizing Gwen, the American John Quinn, comes closer to a real appreciation. He told her that she painted like a woman, when ``most women artists try to paint like men and so they paint badly.''

As to the cats, Mary Taubman argues that her ``searching and elegant'' drawings of them are ``as serious and as important as any [she] produced.'' Sometimes the cats make guest appearances in her oil paintings, but mostly they are in drawing/watercolors as the protagonist. These have a sketch-like feel that was probably necessitated by the subject's unwillingness to pose. The vitality of Gwen John's draftsmanship, fostered by her training at the Slade School in London, is evident here. They also intrigu ingly illustrate another aspect of her art. She came to see that her drawings were ``much better seen in sets'' or ``a lot together.'' Seeing them hung separately, she was ``disappointed.''

Perhaps she sensed that the gestation of her art, which was essentially meditative in character and enmeshed in the continuance of daily existence and the security of home, could not be fully perceived in episodic terms, in fragmented moments. That, anyway, would lay her open to the unfair suggestion of slightness. To portray her cat many times was to intensify her understanding of it: The result is an accumulatively revealing approach not just to the cat but to her own persistently developing sel f.

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