Tate Britain  Linbury Galleries
29 September 2004 – 9 January 2005

The first large-scale exhibition to focus on the work of sibling artists Gwen and Augustus John will open at Tate Britain in September 2004. Including approximately seventy paintings and drawings by each artist, the exhibition will demonstrate that although Augustus described himself and his sister as ‘the same thing, really’, their artistic development went in opposite directions. Augustus’s work seems exuberant against Gwen’s more introverted approach, but both artists indicate a similar flight from the modern world into a realm of personal fantasy.

Gwen John (1876-1939) and Augustus John (1878-1961) were both students at the Slade School in London in the 1890s. By the time he was twenty-five Augustus had become the most famous British artist of his day. Since his death he has been less appreciated but the works in this exhibition (from the years before 1930) demonstrate the need to reassess his reputation. By contrast Gwen almost disappeared from history, and her death was unrecorded, but her reputation has been revived more recently as she has become a painter of international renown.

The exhibition will begin with early portraits the artists made of themselves and of each other. Their lives were changed early on, and the future ambitions of their art were set, when they both became infatuated with the same woman, Dorelia McNeill. Drawings and paintings of Dorelia by both Augustus and Gwen will be shown in the exhibition, demonstrating how each artist projected their differing fantasies onto the same sitter.

Augustus’s art centred for a time on his wife Ida, on Dorelia and on his children by both women. With them he adopted a gypsy lifestyle and the landscape and people of the south of France became an important theme. He was celebrated first for his brilliant figure drawings, and then for a new technique of oil sketching, whose handling and palette reflected the influence of Post-Impressionism. His work was favourably compared with that of Gauguin and Matisse. A room of the exhibition will gather some of Augustus’s important mural paintings from before 1914, and show with them the highly sensual full length drawings of Dorelia that he used as exercises in design and fluency. He then developed a style of portraiture that was imaginative and often extravagant, catching an instantaneous attitude in his subjects, who included Wyndham Lewis, WB Yeats and TE Lawrence.

In contrast to her brother, Gwen John was fastidious and slow-working. Her first paintings in Paris were of single figures and of the interior of her own room. She became a model for Auguste Rodin, and subsequently his lover. She saw the latest art in Paris, and developed a unique style of painting related in some ways to the Intimisme of Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, depicting what was close to her; the view from her window, interiors, and her cats. After the death of Rodin in 1917, her religious belief became the centre of her life, and a room of her more spiritual and meditative portraits of single figures will be shown.

The last room of the exhibition will contrast Gwen and Augustus’s portraits of the 1920s. Although both artists started from intense observation of the figure, the much smaller paintings of Gwen had moved forward to an original modern art, related to the inheritance of Paul Cézanne, while Augustus continued to paint large-scale imaginative portraits. Both are shown to have made a major contribution to modern painting, worthy of re-appraisal.

The exhibition is selected by Tate curators David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Stephens, with the assistance of Cecily Langdale, specialist in the work of Gwen John, and will be accompanied by a catalogue with essays by David Fraser Jenkins and Lisa Tickner, specialist in early twentieth-century art. Tate Publishing will also publish a book of Gwen John’s letters and notebooks in conjunction with the exhibition.


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