The fruits of a gentle life

For some while now I've been concerned that many woman painters have been overlooked or underrated. This seems to be especially true of those women artists who have taken a gentle view of the world. Though they have said something of enduring value, it lacked the necessary panache to call attention to itself.

There is an Ashante aphorism that goes some way toward summing up this problem. It says: ''The hen knows when dawn will break, but it leaves it to the cock to make all the noise.'' The aphorism might fairly be applied to the painters Gwen and Augustus John. August crowed all his life long while Gwen, his sister, lived the life of a recluse. But now, stripped of accompanying myths and boasts, his work looks empty and imitative alongside hers.

To be fair to Augustus, he thought Gwen was ''the greatest woman artist of her age, or, as I think, of any other.'' It is a pity he did not sacrifice some of his stylistic bravura for some of her sensitivity. Out of her quiet life came a number of penetrating but sensitive portraits. We are allowed to feel the stillness and the inner reflection of her sitters and of herself. Varying, muted tones gently whisper to us, and we thus glimpse the simplicity of her life. There are none of her brother's extravagant costumes or his hedonism here. From her quiet, ascetic brush she offers some stillness and light. Her whisper lasts long beyond his thunder.

Augustus John was a fashionable artist whose downfall lay partly in his diversity of style. Admiring other people's pictures, he responded by painting his own after them. Gwen John allowed influences to distill and then to become her own. Of Cezanne's watercolours she said, ''They are good; but I prefer my own.'' Though she was sensitive she was never weak. And she was clear-sighted enough to move eventually to Paris, away from her overpowering brother.

Painting the same subject over and over again (a corner of her room was a favourite), she gave the simplest subject a curious polarity. We can feel the personal nature of her paintings in the empty chair, the parasol and the little jar of flowers. These all tell us of the painter. But there remains a feeling of cool Classicism in all her work: hints are given but attachment and drama are never present. The hen knew but she did not crow.

I have watched people stream past Gwen John's paintings in several different galleries. Her works do not battle to be seen like so many other pictures. If you want to see a Gwen John, you need to approach it properly. Give it time and then, slowly, it may let you into its contemplative world. There you will find order, solidity, paradox and a quiet vision whose subtlety will stay with you.

There is a moral in the story of Gwen and Augustus John, for cocks today still crow, while wiser birds call less attention to themselves.

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