Tate Britain Linbury Galleries
29 September 2004 – 9 January 2005
The first large-scale exhibition to compare the work of sibling artists Gwen and Augustus John will open at Tate Britain in September 2004. Including more than sixty 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 1939) demonstrate the need to reassess his reputation. By contrast Gwen almost disappeared from history, but her reputation has been revived more recently to the extent that she has become a painter of international renown.
The exhibition will begin with early portraits the artists made of themselves, of each other, of Augustus’ wife Ida and of common friends. Their lives were changed early on when they both became infatuated with the same woman, Dorelia McNeill. Drawings and paintings of Dorelia by both artists will be shown in the exhibition, demonstrating how both Gwen and Augustus projected onto her their differing ideals.
Augustus’s art centred for a time on Ida, Dorelia and on his children by both women. With them he adopted a gypsy lifestyle and the landscape of Provence became his inspiration. 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 in London 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. Augustus 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. Gwen lived in Paris from 1904, and her first paintings there were of cats, self-portraits and of the interior of her own room. She became a model for Auguste Rodin, and subsequently his lover. She 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. After the death of Rodin in 1917, her religious belief became the centre of her life, and a room in the exhibition will gather her more spiritual and meditative portraits of single figures.
The last room of the exhibition will bring together Gwen and Augustus’s portraits of the 1920s. Although both artists started from intense observation of the figure, the generally smaller paintings of Gwen had moved forward to an original modern art, related to the inheritance of Paul Cézanne, while Augustus continued to paint more declamatory and imaginative portraits. It will be demonstrated that although the character of each artist’s work was extreme, their attitudes complemented each other and 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, historian of early twentieth-century British art. Tate Publishing will also publish a anthology of Gwen John’s letters and notebooks in conjunction with the exhibition. The exhibition will travel to the National Museum & Gallery, Cardiff (12 February - 15 May 2005)