ReQuietening – the interior landscape

In my most recent blog I discussed the concept of an idea that has the power to grip. I came across a thought in February, (which in hindsight I have realised is just this,) when preparing work on a theme for my final major project of art foundation. I discussed this in Sacred (of January 2010) and then homed in further in Quiet in February. I haven’t intended to consider the idea of quiet since, but clearly there is a lot more to this thought than a ten-week project would allow me to explore.

In the last week or so I’ve gained new familiarity with the work and ideals of early 20th century artist Gwen John. She quite famously said she desired ‘a more interior life,’ a statement that has gained her a reputation unfitting to that which she was – that she, an artist, had no great aim to be one or to be known as one, and longed to be indoors, hidden, beavering. In fact Gwen John was deeply spiritual, and hoped that her art would be an expression of her inner self, with the walls of a room becoming a metaphor for her mind and soul. For example the delightfully inviting, ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’ c. 1907-9, in which her interior is bathing in the light of a cloudless day, and an empty wicker chair, often the symbol of an artist, rests unfelt by a sitter. Yet, resting on top and to the side is a sun umbrella and jacket – she is far from removed from the scene, from absent-minded. Gwen was one of many artists to paint an empty room at this time, enough for an English art critic of 1902 to comment on ‘interior fever’ in the NEAC exhibition hall.

There is but more to this that I have discovered. I spoke of a type of art refocused on the construction of the beautiful, not the destruction caused by war in the afore mentioned articles, commenting that the anger the war had created fostered art that represented the intentionallyugly, and the machine-age as the monster rather than the prodigy of social progress. Later in Gwen’s life in Paris, at the time of the first world war, seen within the alternative art scene was the ‘rappel à l’ordre’ or ‘call to order.’ That is, to reorder from chaos to peace whether it be in subject matter, or in technique, with many new depictions of contemplative tranquillity, as well as a revival of the classical, and a return to traditional painting techniques and methodology. An interesting consequence of the terrors of war – that such negativity could cause a retreat from creativity and from exploring new territory. In areas, it paused modernity in favour of something more…familiar, and probably, pleasant. For what is nicer (horrible word itself) than the picturesque landscape of centuries gone by? As Michael Soloman, and ex-Slade student said to Gwen John, “There is nothing antique or archaistic about your work. THey are so intensely modern in all but their peacefulness.”

And so I’ll return to some beautiful paintings I looked at before but now in a new light: ‘Interior’, 1908, by Vilbelm Hammershoi and ‘Queens House Green II’, 1978, by Ben Johnson, considering that this enjoying essence isn’t mere lighting, and sparse detail but the suggestion made of an interior, spiritual life that unknown to me was at this time capturing my creativity.


Most of these ideas were provoked by my reading of ‘British Artist: Gwen John’ by Alicia Foster.

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