gwen john   gwen-john-nude-girl-1910

Gwen John: Fenella Lovell: Clothed and Unclothed c.1910

‘TWIN GWEN’ – No.1

Gwen John regularly executed several versions of the same composition (incidentally, she won a prize for composition at The Slade, where she trained). Here and in the next blog I’m going to examine two versions of a nude girl and two versions of her room in Paris. Though similar in so many ways, there are strong differences between each version which could be thought to express two different personalities or ‘sides’ to the artist.
We know that John was a conflicted person, having both a passionate nature (she formed extremely close attachments to those she fell in love with, including Rodin) and a retiring, reserved, bookish side. These two aspects can be discerned in her self portraits (shown as opening images here and in the next post). The earlier Self Portrait dating from c.1899 (shown here) shows her as a governess-type – upright, proper and rather superior. Yet with reddened lips and hand on hip something else comes through – she’s an intriguing combination of flamboyance and reserve: commanding yet at the same time withdrawn. We see the same dichotomy in her later self portrait of 1902 where she appears more humble and modest – yet her domineering crimson blouse speaks of passion, and her ‘artist’s cameo’ brooch, of bohemianism.
Her dual portrayal of her friend (though not a bosom buddy- there was some antagonism between them), forms almost a diptych – to my mind they should be hinged together. Both are sinister in their own way. Clothed she is nevertheless vulnerable and possible prey – her exposed neck and shoulders (bare – no necklace), speak of sexual availability as does her left hand suggestively cupped by her intimate parts. The deep shadow behind her gives a sense of the ominous displacement. In her eyes there is a sort of fear or apprehension. She hasn’t yet been taken but she is probably about to be. The companion painting shows her naked – a cloth barely covers her womanhood, and she wears a necklace upon which hangs a single pearl – perhaps a symbol of a lost purity? Her hair is slightly dishevelled and the fear in her eyes is transformed into a leery knowingness. Her left hand though still cupped, has dropped as has her whole body posture. Is this an image of post-coitus? In both images the sloping shoulders and emaciated figures suggest loss and deprivation.
We know that Gwen John neglected herself – she neither ate nor exercised properly (her brother Augustus complained about this). She also often used her models as a kind of replica of herself. Looking at these two sister images (a ‘before and after’?), one feels disheartened and depressed. These are powerfully realistic images, far more disturbing than Munch’s ‘Puberty’ of 1895. Is this what love and sexuality were for John? If so, it’s not surprising she became a Catholic!