Waldemar Januszczak knows which of the Welsh siblings he prefers after seeing Tate Britain’s family feud
There aren’t many brother-and-sister acts in art. Actually, apart from Gwen and Augustus, I can’t think of any. There are various pairs of brothers, of course (Pollaiuolos, Carraccis, Chapmans). You get fathers and sons (Bruegels), and even mothers and sons (Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo). But the brother-and-sister combination involves some notably rare familial dynamics.
The Johns were remarkable in other ways. Coming from the furthest tip of Wales before you fall into the Atlantic — Gwen was born in Haverfordwest in 1876, Augustus in Tenby, two years later — the journey they both made from end-of-the-line Pembrokeshire to the middle of the Parisian art world was one of the longest such journeys in art. Gwen, you feel, was absolutely what she had to be: a thin human presence, hiding from the coastal winds in a cave. Augustus, however, came disastrously off the tracks attempting to travel in the opposite direction to Haverfordwest. He should have been monochrome, hard, serious, Welsh. But he made himself lurid, flimsy, ridiculous, bohemian. The career that resulted shoots him all over the shop like an untied balloon.
It’s adventurous of Tate Britain to attempt a shared exhi-bition devoted to these utterly different yet genetically combined modern-ish artists. Putting on a show of two people at once is a complex business on all sorts of levels. How do you weave a unified journey out of two divergent paths? Who gets the best rooms? What’s the order? It’s tricky. And Tate Britain certainly hasn’t solved it.
The opening room gives us both Johns in tandem, with the younger Augustus having leapfrogged the older Gwen to reach the Slade School of Art in 1894, a year before her. He was patently pushy. She patently wasn’t. Thus, the opening cluster of pictures reveals him to be a flashy draughtsman with an overdeveloped sense of his own worth. He favoured the self-portrait, naturally. In a couple of these, he stares out at us with what is supposed to be a look of prophetic wildness, I imagine. There’s obviously a movie playing in Augustus’s head, with him as a scarily bearded messiah. But even in this silly, self-promoting self-portraiture, he cannot decide what actual style to pursue. He tries red chalk for the old-masterly, messianic look. He gives us a head on fire in a silly symbolist etching. This lack of a secure aesthetic direction, so obvious from the off, was to prove his ultimate difficulty. Most students grow out of stylistic uncertainty. Augustus John never did.
Having got to the Slade first, Augustus immediately laid claim to the family signature, “John”. There was never any move from him to accommodate the artistic ambitions of his sister. “John” he was and “John” he stayed. Gwen, arriving later to the business of branding herself, would occasionally sign her pictures “Gwen John” in that nervous sixth-form hand of hers, which seemed, like the picture itself, to be seeking to hide in a corner. Yet it is Gwen who shows the first tangible signs here of direction and presence.
A couple of early self-portraits in the opening display are marvellous. While he looked like a mad, bad Jesus, she looked like a vicar. Gothic thin. Hair scraped back. Her obvious plainness confronts you from the off like a kind of dare. Both of them could be said to be intense, but where his intensity leads immediately to melodrama, hers makes something so troubling and possessive out of the simple act of looking. Gwen’s is such an unwavering gaze. It seems never to dart or to explore. It just fixes the sitter in a half-length stare and stays there, immobile, for ever.
Both of them were almost entirely painters of people. Gwen favoured nobodies — among whom she clearly counted herself — because, I think, they came to her anonymous and unmade-up. Have you ever visited a Japanese rock garden? The finest ones consist of nothing but an expanse of raked pebbles surrounding a plain rock. The idea is that the plainness of the rock aids and prompts contemplation. Well, Gwen John’s portraits are like that. The simple monochrome background functions as the raked pebbles, while the calm, unmoving sitter becomes the central rock. It’s a zen thing. Augustus, meanwhile, habitually confuses fancy dress with character. Various celebrities of his times begin appearing in his art, and they are not all bad. He gives us a swarthy and Spanish Wyndham Lewis. He sees WB Yeats as a sexily dishevelled Irish drunk. But where it all goes entirely and disastrously wrong is when Augustus’s ridiculous private life begins to dominate his art.
You can see why women liked him. He was certainly handsome, with his mad, messianic hairiness: Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth. What’s harder to understand is why these women lay there and took it. Ida, a fellow Slade student whom he married in 1901, bore him five boys before dying in childbirth in 1907. Bearing his sons killed her, while he, disgustingly, betrayed her at every presented opportunity. Most of the women painted in the bouquet of inconclusive Augustus John styles unveiled at the show’s centre were his lovers. There’s the Cruella de Vil lookalike Ottoline Morrell. There are the dancing girls, modelled, apparently, on former bedmates, who populate the wings of his ludicrous outdoor fantasies of a golden age.
Above all, there is Dorelia, the impressionable, wide-eyed art student whom he painted more than anyone, and whom he introduced into his marriage with Ida to form a toe-curlingly uncomfortable ménage à trois. Dorelia, whose real name was Dorothy, and whom he also called “Ardor”, because that’s the sort of twit he was, arrives in his art at about the same time as his infatuation with gypsies. There are photographs on show of Augustus with Ida and Dorelia and the children and a caravan, acting out his pathetic gypsy fantasies of polygamy and campfires. He is not the first artist to mistake the foreign social systems of the gypsies for convention-challenging sexual rebelliousness, but he is definitely the silliest.
It all becomes particularly problematic when the half-cocked gypsy ideals underpin a suite of huge narrative paintings, commissioned by Sir Hugh Lane and produced in clutches between 1908 and 1914. God, but these are awful. Ida is brought back from the dead to play assorted costume parts as a rural nymph. Dorelia is everywhere, as are the kids, and the lovers. The influence of Picasso, Matisse and Puvis de Chavannes is so obvious that these pictures constitute conceptual tracing. But he just couldn’t do it well. He couldn’t do proper progressiveness. The colours get brighter, the paintwork blockier. But the ingrained conservatism of his figure-drawing is unshakeable.
While all this is going on, Gwen John never deviates from the path she sets herself in her first self-portraits. Moving to Paris in 1904 takes her further into herself, not out. She paints her room. She paints her cat. But usually, she paints other plain women as if they were saints who, like the paintings they find themselves in, have forsworn luxury. When Rodin, her one great love, died in 1917, it is said she turned to the church for consolation. But the evidence here suggests that her inner eye was always turned to the church. I wonder if Modigliani knew her work when he lived near her in Montparnasse? She certainly arrived before him at the slope-shouldered secular madonna.
Combining these two madly different Johns is a difficult task for a show. And it probably should not have been attempted. Gwen, who is too heavy on the bleach at the end, and melts away into indeterminate paleness, survives through the excellent stubbornness of her direction. Augustus is weak from start to finish. But since the show stops looking at him in 1939, the year of Gwen’s death, we are at least spared the ghastly spectacle of his final years.