Gwen John’s searching portraits and poignant life story have featured surprisingly little in the recent surge of interest in neglected women artists. And that may be because she’s hardly considered neglected. The Welsh painter (1876-1939) was a key figure for the 1980s wave of pioneering feminist art criticism, the subject of a major biography and even a BBC drama series called, tellingly, Journey Into the Shadows. John then was seen as a fragile figure bravely holding her own between two bombastic male egos. On the one hand there was her brother, the once stellar portrait painter Augustus John, on the other her longstanding lover, the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
John’s modestly scaled and unflinchingly frank portraits and interiors were a revelation then. But now Augustus is a near-forgotten figure and Rodin just another dead, white man; the fact that an unassuming Welsh woman was a more truthful, more modern – and, perhaps simply better – artist than either, doesn’t feel so much of a story.
This exhibition, however, curated by Alicia Foster, author of a new biography of John, is out to rescue the artist from the forlorn waif image. Far from living a life of tragic isolation, as has tended to be supposed, John, the show argues, was very much in contact with the major currents of “the most exciting times and places in the story of European art”. She met Picasso and Matisse, was close friends with the German poet Rilke, became the model and muse of the great London-based American painter James McNeill Whistler and enjoyed numerous same-sex relationships, as well as a decades-long liaison with the most famous sculptor in the world, Rodin. Far from wasting wanly away in her room, this newly discovered Gwen John was socially gregarious and enjoyed strenuous walking holidays.
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