John, Gwen: Girl In A Blue Dress (c.1914)

The Independent's Great Art series

There are stories about people being turned into pictures. Whether it's Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or Poe's "The Oval Portrait", the basic idea is that becoming a picture can give you immortality – at the cost of your life. In a picture you're eternally preserved from decay, but frozen in suspended animation. (Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray turns the idea on its head: while the living man doesn't change, his portrait ages horribly.)

These stories dwell on one aspect of being pictured: being immobilised. But they neglect another, equally important aspect: being flattened. That's understandable. We know what it feels like to be static, for short periods anyway. The experience of being flat, of withdrawing into a two-dimensional existence, is beyond us. It's very hard to evoke this side of pictorial life. Paintings can show it, though.

The women in Gwen John's paintings are often in a state of withdrawal. The Girl in a Blue Dress is one of them. She's sitting still and quiet. She looks out, but her gaze in unfocused, absorbed in reverie. Her hands are clutched tensely in her lap, arms to her sides. Her body retreats into a self-contained shape that doesn't send out any feelers into the surrounding picture.

It's a simple composition, just a figure and a background wall. She's turned to the right, but (contrary to normal portrait practice) most of the picture area is to her left, behind her, not in front of her, restricting her personal space. She's seated on some kind of stool, with her back against the wall.

Now things start to flatten. It happens in various ways. The uniform pale russet background, which is notionally a flat wall behind the woman, can easily read as the flat painted surface of the picture. And the narrow band of dark shadow she casts onto it suggests that she's right upon this surface.

The figure itself is far from being fully rounded. The darker blue strokes of shading, which edge her lighter blue dress, are abrupt and shallow, as if she wasn't a solid body but a piece of board or card. She is composed of simple areas of colour, like bits of marquetry. The soft, all-over, evenly unassertive dabs of paint, with which the whole image is composed, equate the figure and the background.

Every hue is blended with white, and the blanching of the colours makes the whole picture seem to be fading out, towards some neutral tone, some total loss of contrast, in which no feature is distinct. The expression of the woman's mouth is already barely visible. She is paling away.

You don't think of the girl as apart from the picture in which she appears. You don't think of the model as someone who temporarily sat to be painted, and went on her way. The woman is the painting. She withdraws from life, fading into its surface, pressed like a flower.

One or two elements resist the retreat into two dimensions. The clasped hands in particular stand out with a sharp solidity. But that only emphasises how far the rest of the woman has receded into flatness. She is absorbed into the picture just she is absorbed into herself. She is becoming nobody.



A show of Gwen John's work is currently showing at the Barber Institute of Fine Art, Birmingham (0121-414 7333), to 21 September

The Artist

Gwen John (1879-1939) is a reclusive, introspective, obsessional talent in the modernist mould, doing the same subject over and over, pursuing small differences, a Morandi of the solitary female figure. She lived in France. For a time she was Rodin's model and lover. She joined the Catholic Church, and painted a series of portraits of a long dead nun, currently showing at the Barber Institute .

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?