The Welsh-born painter Gwen John is generally remembered as a “fragile”, isolated figure, said Mark Hudson in The Independent. Neglected for some time after her death, John (1876-1939) was rediscovered in the 1980s, when she was reassessed as a reclusive talent overshadowed by two “bombastic male egos”: her brother, the celebrated painter Augustus John; and the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin, with whom she pursued a doomed romance for a decade. This new exhibition sets out to prove that our understanding of John as a solitary melancholic is a misconception. It argues that she was in fact an artist in tune with all the major movements of her day, and a “socially gregarious” character: she befriended James McNeill Whistler and the poet Rilke, met Picasso and Matisse, and enjoyed “numerous same-sex relationships”. The show, at Pallant House in Chichester, brings together 113 works from every stage of John’s career, as well as a wealth of paintings and drawings by friends and contemporaries that shed light on her art and her life. Ultimately, the Gwen John who emerges from this “fascinating” display is “a much odder, more interesting and more radical artist” than anyone might have expected.
John’s art “is never ingratiating or sentimental”, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. There is a mood of “chapel-like austerity” to some of her earlier work. Moving to Paris as a young woman, she specialised in “contemplative, stark interiors” often incorporating “solitary, skinny female figures” in garrets adorned with “lace curtains and wicker chairs”. One highlight is a sepia-hued still life depicting a teapot and some sumptuously rendered china cups in front of a fireplace in a windowless room; another is a “captivating” portrait of Augustus’s lover Dorelia McNeill, a “self-contained yet subtly sensuous” image that eclipses her brother’s “trite” likeness of the same model that is hung alongside. It’s a shame, however, that the paintings aren’t allowed to speak for themselves. The show’s constant insistence that John was done down by the patriarchy becomes tiresome and ultimately unconvincing.
There are some unexpected and rather wonderful images here, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. A Parisian concierge glares out from a portrait with “rancorous gloom”, while a drawing of a nun sees its subject “fairly beaming with humour”. We also see the “beautiful” painting “Girl in a Blue Dress” (c.1914) and a 1909 self-portrait in watercolour, in which the artist leans forward, clutching a letter. Yet there are, unfortunately, a lot of “mediocre” works by John and her contemporaries here, not least some “bafflingly weak” drawings by Rodin. Ultimately, the exhibition “contains and attempts too much”. It’s so eager to explore her social world that it sometimes loses sight of “Gwen John’s singularity”.
Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, West Sussex (01243-774557, pallant.org.uk). Until 8 October