Sunday, 1 July 2012

Gwen John Self Portrait 1900: National Portrait Gallery London

28th June 2012

The last Thursday of the month is the NPG London visualising portraits event.  I had missed them since January on account of hospital appointments for my hip operation and subsequent surgery.  (During that time, Esther from the NPG had been in touch and had arranged for me to get the photos of Elizabeth Stuart – see post )

I entered the gallery through the main entrance and as with all public buildings there is an increased security presence with the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.  The staff told me to go to the information desk area where the group normally gathers.  (In the past I have been escorted to the room as I had arrived with time to have a “look round”.)   There were about 5/6 of us there and I had met 2 of them before.  Esther was there and Ben an intern, was assisting. We gathered and took the stairs to the Late Victorian Room where Gwen John’s self portrait is hanging next to her brother Augustus John by Sir William Orpen. 

Our reproduction copies are slightly smaller than the painting itself.  Marion Cole was our describer and we discussed the John family, Gwen John’s training at Slade and her tutor.

Gwen John was a successful artist who moved to Paris and modelled for Auguste Rodin, with one famous sculpture of her as a muse in plaster in the Rodin museum in Paris and a bronze casting in the USA.  She became a lover and stalker of Rodin until he died and moved between Paris and Hampshire.  She died in 1939.

Gwen John is portrayed with her head slightly turned at the top, with her hands clasped near her hips at the bottom of the painting. With an oval face, hair tied back and centre parted her face was described by Marion.  Colours in the reproduction and in the original are unclear for me.  The background is green on a brown first coat, while the blouse is russet.  The shoulders are shown in full width and about half way on the height of the 2 foot painting. 

We took advantage of Marion who described the adjacent painting of Augustus John.  This one is pure geometrical rectangles from right to left with John sitting or sprawled.  Both paintings were darkly lit.  Marion had brought along a biography of Gwen John with some illustrations of her other works.  She was famous in portraits and had even “done” a mother superior of a convent from a prayer card.  The sitter had been dead for 200 years! 

We enjoyed our discussions which lasted 90 minutes and it is interesting to hear descriptions of faces.  This neatly complemented an interview with Jenny Saville which I heard on BBCRadio3 Nightwaves.  Saville was being interviewed by Matthew Sweet and in discussions about life sittings, the talk switched to the philosophical one of returning the gaze of a blind person.  Saville had painted Rosetta and discussed blindness frankly.  This programme is of a high quality and I would recommend it for this interview alone.  The programme was titled Jenny Saville and broadcast on June 25.  It is available as a podcast on:  . 

Other interviews in this Radio3 slot have included one with Uta Frith with her neuroscience background and an interesting side move to visual cues and non verbal communication.  This programme was broadcast on 19 June and title The Turing Test.

Many thanks to Esther and Ben for taking us round.  Each visit has allowed me to visit another century of portraiture as well as familiarise myself with the building and its stairs, lifts and I think I even heard an escalator!