Painters in Parallel: A Feminine View

Last weekend I made a dash down to Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to see the exhibition Gwen John and Celia Paul: Painters in Parallel before it’s final day. This was an inspiring and thought provoking selection of drawings, paintings and prints.

The beautiful interior of Pallant House Gallery made a perfect setting for this exhibition of the drawings and paintings of Gwen John and Celia Paul. The work of these two female painters exhibited side by side was very powerful. All the paintings and drawings in the first room of this small and intimate exhibition focus on the female figure, as did much of the oeuvre of both artists.

Mere  Poussepin, late 1920

Mere Poussepin, late 1920

There are many striking parallels in the lives of these two female painters. Working 80 years apart both trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, Gwen alongside her brother Augustus John, and both became models and muses for internationally renowned male artists, Auguste Rodin and Lucian Freud. Both painters worked with models they knew well and concentrated almost exclusively on the female form. Again and again throughout the exhibition, the intimate relationship between artist and model is explored and re-examined.

I have always had a great admiration and a fondness for the paintings of Gwen John (1876-1939). Each canvas is a meditation, each delicate paint stroke the result of long and considered observation. The eye becomes caught up in the subtle transitions of one colour harmony against another. Sadly there were only five of Gwen’s paintings in the show but each a gem.

The portrait of Mere Poussepin (above) is a striking image, which is very abstract in it’s geometry. The clasped hands placed in her lap are placed at the point where three triangles meet, the wonderful triangular tapering sleeves falling on either side of the inverted dark triangle of the bodice. As with all Gwen’s paintings this is a beautiful study of subtle temperature changes. One of the Convelescent series is placed centrally within the room, freestanding as there is also a small still life painted in verso. This small painting which dates from the early to mid 1920’s is a very quiet and intimate scene of a young girl seated reading. This beautiful composition with it’s calm and tranquil palette adds to the atmosphere of quiet contemplation.

The 1898 painting Portrait of the Artists’ Sister, Winnifred is close by and shows the painters admiration and respect for the portraiture of James McNeil Whistler. A dark and sombre palette, particularly with the darkness of the gloves accentuating the vivid pink which in turn picks up the warmth of the models skin. The head is beautifully drawn, as the torso turns towards the picture plane the head is delicately tilted as her gaze meets ours.

The paintings of Celia Paul (b.1959) have a melancholic intensity and a strong feeling of isolation about them. Like Gwen John she uses a muted palette of greys. Each figure sits within an interior which is undefined and anonymous. In her full-length Self-Portrait of 2012, the artist sits passively, lost in thought. A very painterly texture is created as the paint daubs cover her smock, her bare feet placed on paint splattered floorboards. To the bottom left of this large canvas, we see a number of paint tubes which have been emptied and abandoned on the floor which echoes the Lucian Freud painting Painter and Model, 1986/7 when we see Celia Paul painting a reclining male nude. In her self-portrait Celia is painting both artist and model at the same time.

The Paul portrait which I felt had the most presence in the exhibition was Annela, 2012, The model whilst at the Courtauld Institute had written her dissertation on Gwen John and it was this connection that drew the model to the artist. There is a strong sense of solitude and contemplation in this work. The pose which echoes that of Gwen John’s Mere Poussepin which hangs alongside.

The 2006 painting My Mother with a Rose is an intimate image of the elderly sitter who has been painted repeatedly. The paint-handling and modelling around the hands and rose is particularly striking. Paul has always worked from models who she knows intimately, saying that she finds it difficult to work with sitters who are unknown to her.

The second room of the exhibition is mostly devoted to Celia Paul’s etchings. These are very sensitive images, the soft-ground etching adding both softness and atmosphere. Her charcoal drawing of Lucian Sleeping, 1987 is both very touching and tender.

'A Corner of the Artist's Room in Paris' 1907-9.

‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ 1907-9.

The painting above was the only Gwen John painting in the upstairs gallery. This beautiful small canvas is a stunning study of light and dark, with the strong dark diagonal being used to emphasise the chair. A garment is draped over the chair whilst a parasol leans against the chair arm, a portrait of an absent sitter.

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