Kaye Donachie: Song for the Last Act review – painted women who refuse to sit still and be pretty

The longer you look at Kaye Donachie’s portraits, the weirder they get. All of them avoid looking you in the eye. Their gazes slide away; they look to the side, are cast down or are occupied elsewhere. Consumed by the unseen, they can appear distracted or appalled. These are paintings, after all, not beings trapped in a frame. They aren’t even portraits. They have their beginnings in old black and white photographs, but their faces belong to no one.

Donachie uses these photographic faces as an armature for her brushstrokes. With their fades, shadows and blushes, their swipes and flickers recall other paintings as much as they animate these imaginary people. Donachie’s painted women are knowing constructs, and I get the feeling they could lose their composure at any moment, turn and smile, laugh, fly apart, disintegrate. She makes use of the play between the paint and the makeup her women wear, the patches of rouge, the shadows under a cheekbone, the interplay of nature and artifice. It is all a complicated game. Lively, animated, disturbed, motivated by something other than our attention, these painted women refuse to sit still and be pretty. The paintings also seem to have built-in flaws and glitches, places where modelling misregisters or goes awry and description falters. This is clearly deliberate. Displayed in the largest room of Pallant House’s original Queen Anne townhouse, they surround us, and you have the feeling that their gazes are communing among themselves rather than with us.

The women who inspire Donachie, and whose ghosts flicker through her paintings include Lee Miller, Claude Cahun (for whom role play was integral to her life and art), poets Emily Dickinson and Iris Tree. Her titles, too, often taken from lines and snatches of poems, misdirect us as much as they are clues to some inner temperament or situation or a nod to a particular individual or time.

The conjunction between Donachie and Gwen John does the latter no favours, and even though the link between the two exhibitions is happenstance

Donachie’s Song for the Last Act is paired with Pallant House’s retrospective of Gwen John (1876-1939), which fills a suite of rooms in the gallery’s modern extension. The conjunction between Donachie and John does the latter no favours, and even though the link between the two exhibitions is happenstance, comparisons are unavoidable.

John’s show coincides with the publication of her biography by Alicia Foster. John’s life is more interesting than her art. Though she remains something of an enigma and a mass of contradictions, John feels meek, dull and repressed as an artist. For me, her paintings shrink away. Her women sit with a book or a cat. Their shoulders droop, their expressions are glum or downright miserable, the colour close-toned and greyed, the atmosphere claustrophobic. It is as though all light and life has been drained away. I find her work enervating. Even the repetitions in her paintings – the same poses, the same colour and compositions repeated again and again – lack the serial quality and variation you get, say, in Giorgio Morandi.

John’s work at Pallant House is interrupted by paintings by her peers: a Pierre Bonnard, a Édouard Vuillard, a small head of a boy by Cézanne, and there’s a hideous, slick and over-ripe painting by Augustus John, Gwen’s brother. Gwen John was never trying to compete with any of the artists who surrounded her. For some years she was the sculptor Rodin’s model and lover (the relationship was fraught), and she also had a number of sexual relationships with women. She read and reread Freud on sexuality, turned to Catholicism and ultimately gave up painting altogether. Among letters and other ephemera, a little crucifix she owned sits in a vitrine, though I don’t know why we need to see this. She also painted a series of portraits of nuns, whose habits at least give us a bit of compositional and tonal variety.

Coming to the end of John’s show, we return to Donachie, who has hung one of her own paintings among a selection of works she has chosen from Pallant House’s extensive collection. Artists often make interesting curators: they have their own stake in other people’s art. Édouard Manet’s etching of a Spanish dancer, and an etching of his Olympia, give way to Walter Sickert, surrealist Eileen Agar and British pop artist Pauline Boty among others. These small-scale works are all hung on a long wall that Donachie has papered, floor to ceiling, with vertical panels, as though it were an opened-out folding screen. There are horizons, discs, a repeated curlicue like a detail of a bit of ironwork. The panels evoke Matisse and the works that float on this background depict inner and outer lives, cities, landscapes, desires. In a second room a Cézanne lithograph of his male bathers hangs beside the oddly repressed homoerotic works of Keith Vaughan. Later we come to Duncan Grant’s lounging male bathers, with their lingering looks and sexy poses and a wonderful drawing by feminist artist Jacqueline Morreau depicting a naked woman lying beside a mirror, who returns her own gaze in the glass. You do a double-take: is this one woman or two?

There are some great and unexpected things here, all overseen by a single painting by Donachie that depicts a woman seen in profile, leaning forward, hands clasped under her chin, as though enrapt. The title, Monotonous Remorse, seems at odds with the woman’s expression, as if intended as a misdirection. The phrase comes from a poem by Tree (1897-1968), a poet, actor and artist’s model. Tree was, coincidentally, painted by Augustus John and Grant, modelled for sculptor Jacob Epstein and was photographed by Man Ray. In later life she appeared in Fellini’s 1960 movie La Dolce Vita. You want to know her. Life, with all its multiple and random connections, comes tumbling out. Donachie wants to acknowledge hidden depths and mysteries through her work and its staging, while Gwen John performs her strange disappearing act in the middle of it all.

Kaye Donachie: Song for the Last Act and Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris are both at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 8 October.