Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris review – sacrifices art to history

Three images, at least, should startle the crows. The first is a drawing of a nun fairly beaming with humour. The second is a painting of a Parisian concierge with an expression of such rancorous gloom she threatens to undermine the characteristic quietude of the Gwen John portrait. The third is a monochrome photograph of the artist herself, circa 1908, working as a life model for Rodin and here blown up to the size of life – in effect, a gigantic nude.

This is a show with a mission to surprise, to jump us out of our old preconceptions. The Welsh-born Gwen John (1876-1939) is no longer to be seen as a lonely recluse, fragile, withdrawn and pale as her painting. Instead we are presented, in this first “major retrospective” for 20 years, with “a story of connections”.

Some are social: her many friends and correspondents, from early days at the Slade to life in Paris, and later the suburb of Meudon, where she moves to be closer to Rodin. Some are sexual: the passionate friendships with a succession of female artists; the 10-year affair with Rodin that ends in stricken misery. Most are to do with painting itself.

John is shown copying a 17th-century Dutch scene by Gabriël Metsu, practising tonal variations in the manner of her sometime teacher Whistler, painting quiet interiors at the same time as Edouard Vuillard and the French intimists, as well as the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.

All that you see or know of the room is the pale reverberation of paint. It feels more like a state of mind

She paints Dieppe by night. So does Sickert, whose 1910 painting The Old Hotel Royale belongs to Pallant House and is therefore pressed into service. She used to live in Camden; so we see Spencer Gore’s abysmal Interior, 31 Mornington Crescent, London, as stuffed with Edwardian bric-a-brac as John’s rooms are empty.

She drew herself nude, remarkably. So did her German contemporary Paula Modersohn-Becker. Their sketches are paired together to emphasise the radicalism of these two women, but the chosen images are alas so disappointingly cursory as to undermine the point.

And here is the first dilemma. This show is so eager to make a social figure out of John that it occasionally loses her in the jostle. Here are her friends Ida Nettleship (wan sketches) and Mary Constance Lloyd (flimsy still lifes), her first boyfriend (middling portraits) and her last (Rodin, represented here with some bafflingly weak drawings).

Indeed, almost the earliest work here is John’s own watercolour of a thronged room in her London digs, in what is probably 21 Fitzroy Square. The show’s curator, Alicia Foster, who has also written a new biography that is exemplary in its social and art historical research, has been able to identify every Slade student in the image. But it remains a piece of clumsy juvenilia.

Still, it involves figures in rooms, and that is what we are here for. The girl in blue, the sad girl, the girl with a cat, the young convalescent: nobody knows her name for certain, only that she appears in many of Gwen John’s paintings, three-quarter length, positioned slightly to the left, hands clasped, occasionally with a book in gently sifting light.

Sometimes she appears to be seated, yet no chair is depicted. Sometimes she is backed against a wall, or sitting in a space so shallow as to be almost indeterminate, or merging with the mysterious atmosphere.

Pallant House has managed to borrow John’s beautiful Girl in a Blue Dress (c.1914) from a private collection. Here it is as if the girl, her clothes, the wall and even her shadow are all consubstantial, of a piece with the pale and hazy oil paint.

Something of this relationship between light and spirit is apparent even when John is working in watercolour. In a self-portrait from 1909, borrowed from the Musée Rodin, the artist leans forward with a letter in her hand (perhaps one of the hundreds she wrote to him). She is in some sort of room, to the extent that the scene is not outdoors, but all that you see or know of it is the pale reverberation of paint. It feels more like a state of mind.

Waiting, hoping, brimming with the anticipation of opening the envelope, or sending it, or setting eyes on her lover: the picture is all delicate pressure. And so it goes with these strange and tensile paintings, which do not resemble anything by Whistler no matter that they might share a close-toned palette.

How she made them matters. An essay from Tate Britain’s 2004 brother-sister show of Gwen John and Augustus John explained that she mixed chalk both with her paint and also an absorbent ground of glue. That makes the paint paler and stiffer to move about. There is nothing quick or fluid about her art; the dappled, stippled, steadily covered surfaces (and atmospheres) are slow and hard-won.

John’s primacy was scarcely in doubt back then and nor was her passionate involvement with other artists. Augustus John, in a well-known quote, wrote that “she wasn’t chaste or subdued but amorous and proud”. So this exhibition, in its ambition to show John anew, has to branch out.

It has the captivating portraits of nuns, and of women and children glimpsed from behind at mass, superbly presented at the Barber Institute in 2008. It has one of the exquisite paintings of John’s Paris attic that have become synonymous with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. But it also has, unfortunately, a lot of mediocre works by John and her contemporaries that are still drifting around for sale on the secondary market.

And by throwing the emphasis in all directions – what’s the book in the picture, what’s on the wall in the Gore – it sacrifices art to history. The exhibition simply contains and attempts too much. The only thing that matters is the one thing stinted on here – namely Gwen John’s singularity.

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 8 October