`GENIUS which is intuitive and spontaneous is of necessity uneven in its achievement,'' wrote John Rothenstein in his 1952 book ``Modern English Painters.''
Rothenstein's words introduced the final paragraph of his chapter on Augustus John (1878-1961). His essay on the artist was a highly appreciative but balanced view, moderating some of his earlier published opinions about John's work, particularly his ``capacities as a painter on a monumental scale.''
Rothenstein explained: ``No kind of painting interests [John] so deeply,'' and he quoted the artist speaking in 1939 to this effect: ``When one thinks of painting on great expanses of wall, painting of other kinds seems hardly worth doing.''
Yet ``painting of other kinds,'' and most notably portraiture, are really what John is now largely valued for. Those who do not value portraiture much in the 20th century do not value John much at all.
Rothenstein greatly valued him, however, writing of his ``outstanding stature'' and ``magnificence,'' of his ``audacity'' and ``majestic sweep.'' A number of his portraits are intensely memorable, coming apparently - as in the case of his portraits of Thomas Hardy, cellist Madame Suggia, and W.H. Davies - out of a fierce sympathy quickly developed between painter and sitter. Hardy commented on his: ``I don't know whether that is how I look or not, but that is how I feel.''
BUT looking at the evidence of John's various attempts at wall-sized paintings, Rothenstein had changed his position somewhat from speaking, a number of years earlier, ``with some indignation of the neglect of [John's] powers of painting upon a great scale'' to believing that he may have ``a little overestimated'' the painter's abilities in this respect.
The problem, as Rothenstein had come to see it, was that John was the kind of artist who ``enjoys painting pictures rather than planning them, and while no effort is too strenuous while he has his brush in hand, he lacks all those qualities that go to make a great organizer.'' And large wall-paintings require considerable, patient organization.
``And so it is,'' concluded Rothenstein, ``that John's monumental paintings, even the finest of them, remain unfinished, dazzling sketches abandoned with their difficulties unresolved.''
But - as ``The Mumpers'' in the collection of The Detroit Institute of Arts demonstrates - the problem is not so much that it is an unfinished sketch, but that it is somehow too finished, frozen into a kind of timeless, dry, and linear classicism, strangely stilted. It is as if John had different standards and expectations when he came to paint a mural-sized painting - a significant and even perhaps symbolic composition with figures in a landscape.
John invests his ``mumpers'' - who are tramps or beggars - with more archetypal heroism of attitude than plain realism. Mumpers were not tidy people; proper gypsies regarded the mumpers as beneath them. John had firsthand experience of both gypsies and mumpers. His son Romilly recalled how when the John family moved to a house exaggeratedly called ``Alderney Manor'' which had large grounds, the mumpers would invade these grounds after they heard the family called in for lunch by a bell and would poach rabbits and firewood. They were marauders and thieves, really, but John (at least at first) had sympathy for them.
About the same time that he completed his large painting, he made a small oil-on-panel painting of ``The Mumper's Child'' - a little girl with red hair, remote and too old for her years. It has been described as ``one of John's finest evocations of the wild earthiness he loved so well,'' and it certainly betrays a very direct response to this deprived child who seems to belong to another universe. His portraits and oil sketches can be brilliantly free and immediate by comparison to his large compositions.
John did not actually paint the enormous ``Mumpers'' on a wall. But, although it is on moveable canvas, it was originally intended as part of a house decoration for a patron. It is not in oil paint. It is in John's version of ``tempera,'' using dry pigmented colors mixed with a medium, rather than tubed colors as supplied by the colorman. This technique, he felt, somehow brought him into contact with the old masters of fresco painting. John was not a modern artist. This was in line with his persona; he believed himself to be virtually a throwback to an earlier, more primitive age. Some of his less-liberated contemporaries agreed with him: They found him scandalous in many ways. Others found him irresistible, heroic, a ``genius.''
John left a description of his painting of ``The Mumpers.'' He wrote in a letter of 1912: ``I suddenly took and painted my cartoon of Mumpers - in tempera, finished it in 4-1/2 days, and sent it in.'' (He sent it to an exhibition in London, at the New English Art Club.) ``In spite of the hasty workmanship,'' he added, ``it doesn't look so bad on the whole. I have also an immense drawing of the Caucasian Gypsies....''
John had more than an aesthetic interest in gypsies (as opposed to mumpers). He identified with them, learned their language and songs, and sometimes lived with them for periods of time. He came to look like one himself and even took to the roads with his family for a while, living in a fair degree of squalor until it got too much for them. All this was a total rebellion against his stifling childhood background, which was narrow and middle-class.
He saw gypsies as outcasts, and he saw artists as outcasts. He once wrote to his friend the artist William Rothenstein (father of John Rothenstein) from Cherbourg, France: ``I was thrilled this morning - and my hand still trembles - by the spectacle of a company of Russian Gypsies coming down the street. We spoke together in their language - wonderful people with everyone's hand against them - like artists in a world of petits bourgeois.''
Michael Holroyd, in his biography of John, analyzes the artist's emotional love of the gypsies at length, observing among other things that John took to the road not as ``an isolated whim'' but because he was ``reacting, as others were beginning to, against the advance of industrialized society, with its inevitable shrinking of personal liberty, its frontiers barbed-wired by a rigmarole of passports and identity cards, rules, regulations... licences, censuses, forms in triplicate.'' He wanted both the loneliness and the community of the countryside - and the gypsies seemed to epitomize these contradictory states. ``The absolute isolation of the Gypsies seemed to me the rarest and most unattainable thing in the world,'' Holroyd wrote.
SO John invested his painting of the mumpers with some of the admiration of his feeling for gypsies. Their classical poses are interspersed with some attitudes of laissez faire, certainly, but on the whole they seem frozen into an ancient typicality, almost an allegory, as if they were a neo-Greco-Roman frieze by Puvis de Chavannes, the 19th-century French painter of murals who was not only admired by John, but also by Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Although John painted this vast canvas very quickly, he did not do so without considerable prior planning. The full-scale drawing, or cartoon, from which he worked is remarkable evidence of the preparation he made for the painting. There is no apparent indication that this cartoon was transferred in any direct way - by pricking through or tracing, for instance - to the canvas. Nor is it squared for transfer - with a grid drawn over it. So presumably John set up his cartoon and copied it. The cartoon and the finished painting appear to be very close to each other, and any changes of thought the artist had took place at the drawing stage, not at the painting stage (except for the dog on the right side of the painting).
The cartoon is infinitely more alive, vigorous, and spontaneous in feel - and therefore truer to the essential John - than the final painting. It seems likely that the painting lacks the drawing's energy for the very reason that it is such a close copy in paint of the cartoon: It inevitably lacks the savor of the first bite, the sensitivity of a subject being executed for the first time.
YOU do feel in the drawing that John knew very well the sort of characters he was depicting. But he felt inhibited in their actual presence, as he himself once mentioned.
He had no wish to pose them, partly because they looked and behaved differently when they knew they were being drawn or painted. He understood their pride and their reticence. They were the opposite of the self-conscious sitters whose society portraits he painted on commission. He could capture the theatrics of these sophisticated people (and sometimes their more hidden character) with flourish and bravura, and he could do so face to face.
With gypsies and mumpers, John had to rely on memory, and this is the main reason why a kind of coolness creeps in and misrepresents the fervor he genuinely felt toward such people. There is a rather terrible irony in the fact that the very people he appears to have felt most at home with, those outsiders with no fixed home, proved elusive to his art. He wanted to encapsulate his passion for them; but in the end they became almost picturesque.
* The studies for `The Mumpers' will be on view at the Mercury Gallery's stand at the New Pier Show in Chicago from May 4 to May 9.