GJRoom  john corner

Gwen John: A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris c.1907-09


As I mentioned in the previous post, Gwen John didn’t look after herself well. She ate little and lived in poverty for much of her life. Her attic room (high up therefore cheap), in Montparnasse is simply furnished, if not sparse. Whilst she lived there she was working as an artist’s model for Rodin, so this space is not principally a working one. Executed in her characteristic muted palette with ghost-like transparency, there is a feeling that the artist is both here and not here. The empty chair, reminiscent of Van Gogh’s famous yellow seat, suggests both her presence and her absence. The two images in my opinion should be ‘read’ together like the previous ones. Painted around the same time, we see John’s characteristic use of a template, but with significant differences. In the left image there is a bowl of flowers on the simple pine table and a coat and parasol rest on the wicker chair. These features together with the delicate muslin curtain and the warm pink glow, suggest femininity and quietness. The closed window suggests a separation from the busy metropolitan world of Paris – a separation typical for a middle class woman of this period who would have been expected to be chaperoned in public. In the image on the right, the window is open, there is no parasol and a book is open on the table in place of flowers. The coloration is more blue and colder. It is tempting to see here an expression of a more extrovert and ‘masculine’ intellectual identity. The two together could represent a kind of ‘Ying and Yang’ – an introvert and extrovert self.
Though apparently tentative and quiet, both works are actually powerfully expressive. One feels these almost empty spaces could be the venue for something important to happen – an original thought or feeling perhaps?. They are also highly personal, speaking not only of John’s living accommodation but of her inner self. The unusual composition with the slant of the window recess, the slight tilt of the wall line, the simple blocks of building across the street and the strong contrast of light and shade, render them iconic. Once seen, they are never forgotten.