In 2014, blue appeared in the work I was making in response to John’s letters.
Blue was the colour of the ink in John’s letters: of the delicate writing paper she used: the rich depth hidden inside an envelope addressed to Rodin: the sea she yearned for: the pale blue of her ‘watery eyes’: and the enamel street signs of Paris.
A work by Spencer Finch, ‘Study of Evaporation (Indathrene blue) 2010, is a study of a glass that holds the watercolour material, used in the work. Finch made a daily painting of it using the same glass of watercolour medium until it evaporates whereby the colour becomes more intense eventually drying up.
Various shades of blue saturated into the studio in 2014. Blue became darkest navy.
In Aberystwyth the sea was ever present, on sunny days it sparkled like glass, on stormy days it swelled with a more turbulent greyness. Green envelopes me and I long for the blue of the sea; to swim out far, far, where my feet cannot touch the bottom, for an estuary sea where swimming is only a dream.
Top: Spencer Finch (2010) Study of Evaporation (Indathrene Blue), watercolour on paper, 55.9 x 76.2 cm
Bottom: Anna Falcini (2015) The First Conversation, photocopy, acrylic paint, gouache and collage on cartridge paper mounted on perspex
‘In Between the Folds are Particles’ was due to open at Canolfan Y Celfyddydau/Aberystwyth Arts Centre on March 18th but sadly due to Coronavirus, the centre has shut for the time being and my exhibition is on hold until later in the Summer. It is a sad time for so many people affected by the virus particularly those in the NHS and families or individuals suffering with the illness. That is upper most in our minds in this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in. The exhibition is one of many cultural events that have had to be rescheduled or cancelled and it is truly devastating for all those affected in their professional projects. However, there is always a way forward and so whilst things are on hold, I decided to spend some precious time in my studio to re-visit my blue stripe drawings.
An example of the blue stripe drawings
The drawings are something that I intuitively began working on at the very beginning of this project when I was an artist in residence at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and when I began researching John’s draft letters in 2014, at the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. I can’t say for certain, why I began working with the idea of a blue stripe other than I associated the ultramarine pigment with the street signs of Paris, where John lived most of her adult life. Despite the mysteries of the origins of the blue stripe drawings they persisted as a body of work to be investigated further.
As I researched Gwen John’s life, blue seemed to be a colour that resonated with her; through her eyes, her connection to the sea, often in the notepaper of her letters and in her paintings. I chose her painting ‘Girl in a Blue Dress’ (1914-15) as the subject of my own work ‘Silent Contemplation’, the anonymous female figure wearing a dress of soft blue, fixing us with her knowing gaze as her shadow hovers like a spectre behind.
The painting is in the British Art Collection of Yale University and it seemed uncanny that it existed and that I was working with this motif of the blue stripe. Like many aspects of this project, I speculated that it was another element of silent dialogue between myself and Gwen John.
‘Still Life with a Prayer Book, Shawl, Vase of Flowers and Inkwell (late 1920s)
With these new drawings, I have decided to create a larger piece this time and have started with a surface of 42 lines approximately 80 cm wide and 1.6 metres long. From here I am pondering on whether to develop the drawing through sections of lines that cross in grids or diagonals or whether to manipulate the paper into folded shapes such as pleats. In my original exhibition ‘Talking to Gwen’ at Oriel Davies in 2015 I made a prototype of a blue stripe drawing that was pleated and the idea was a seed that wanted to return to at some point. Perhaps now is an ideal moment to take a leap of faith and explore this little seed?
I created a small film about the process of making the blue stripe drawings (please follow the link above) and some of the themes it provokes including Tim Ingold’s work on the subject of lines and Maggie Nelson’s book ‘Bluet’s about her obsession with the colour blue. As I’ve been making the simple parallel lines on the paper, I reflected upon my early training as a weaver, making the warp and threading it onto the loom. I always loved the technique of wrapping threads around the warping mill in the production of the warp. Weaving though was not my only interest and I became curious about threads and materiality beyond the loom, eventually moving through conceptual textiles into a multi media art practice. As I make these new works though, I re-visit a snapshot of my past practice through these ‘Additive traces’ on to the paper’s surface (Ingold, 2007: 43)
Ingold, T. (2007) Lines: A Brief History. Oxford: Routledge
To mark the 80th anniversary of Gwen John’s death on the 18th September 2019, I travelled to Dieppe, the site of John’s death and burial place. I had studied the letters of John periodically, over a 5 year time span and John had become someone of great relevance to me. I had been thinking of this day for a while, wanting to mark it in some way. I knew that I had to be in Dieppe to pay my own respects to this remarkable woman who has become so important to me.
I had originally hoped to also gather a group to come from Wales and the UK and explored options of funding but ultimately, it was not possible. Discussing the problem with curator Ffion Rhys at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, led to a chance remark by Ffion that she would write a letter as she would not be able to go in person to Dieppe. I realised that this was a beautiful gesture and could be expanded. Instead of people physically travelling to Dieppe, I could take a message from them to Gwen, via a letter.
This idea seemed to resonate with so many people and I put the call out on social media as well as through my own contacts. I received letters, poems, drawings and watercolours that were poignant, beautiful, individual and heartfelt. The contributions came from writers, artists, curators, academics and poets. I took the letters to the Janval Cemetery in Dieppe where John is buried and placed them beneath a plaque that commemorates the late Welsh artist.
Accompanying me was Mair Hughes, a fellow artist and fluent French speaker who kindly translated for me. We met Msr Damien Cordier at the Marie de Dieppe who was the Director of the direction du développement culturel et de la vie associative. Msr Cordier was very helpful and supportive of the event and he accompanied us to the cemetery.
I laid out the letters beneath the commemorative plaque and weighted them down with stones I had collected from the beach that morning, in Dieppe. It felt like an important gesture of connecting the sea to the letters and of the weight of time held in the stones. Time, so fleeting in our lives and particularly in Gwen John’s life. In one of her letters, John had remarked ‘I long for the sea.’ It was a connection she maintained in her life, beginning with her childhood on the Pembrokeshire coast.
I brought flowers and these were placed with my own letter to Gwen. At the ceremony, I read Phil Barrett’s poem ‘This Quiet Life of Paint’ and my own letter. At these moments of division it felt so important, to celebrate this cross cultural tie between our three countries of France, Wales and England.
We walked to the site where John’s body is buried, a chamber that holds many bodies. The details of John’s burial were foggy but many graves were removed after the second world war to make space for war graves and John’s was perhaps one of these. This was the saddest part for me as I had not seen the site before but I had been given the location by Barry John, a distant relative of Gwen John from Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire and who kindly shared his knowledge of the site with me.
We left the cemetery and went to the Musée de Dieppe which is situated on a hill overlooking the sea and the town. The building, a magnificent chateau has an excellent collection of paintings and artifacts connected to Dieppe. At the museum, Msr Cordier had kindly organised for my film, Chère Julie to be screened to a local audience from the town. I was honoured to meet Msr Pierre Ickowicz, the Conservateur en Chef of the Musée de Dieppe who assisted in the screening at the museum. The film had a number of scenes from Dieppe in it and it was very important to me that it was screened here. It was an extremely generous audience and afterwards I had a discussion about the film and my project.
I was truly honoured to go to Dieppe on this day, to experience such generosity and connection to Gwen John through the letters I received and the cordiality of the people of Dieppe. My letter to Gwen ends with this request:
‘I urge you not to rest in peace but to linger, to haunt us and disturb us forever with your imprint.’
So excited to find this image of a Gwen John painting ‘Still Life with a Prayer Book, Shawl, Vase of Flowers and Inkwell’, late 1920s, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. I’ve been working with the motif of a blue stripe since I first began this project about Gwen John in 2014 so this is a lovely find.
Cheré Julie will be part of an evening of screenings of regional films at the Borderlines Film Festival on Friday 15th March at De Koffie Pot in Hereford from 7:30pm. I’ll be presenting a short extract from the film and talking about the making of the work, in an evening with other talented film makers from the area.
It’s a privilege to be a part of the festival which is so well established in Hereford and presents an excellent programme of films in the city and across rural locations in Herefordshire and on its borders of Shropshire and Wales. This is the 17th festival and it looks to be another year of excellent film. I first showed work in the festival many years ago in its early format, with a group of young filmmakers called Eye Candy where we presented an evening of artists’ and independent films.
I’m delighted to announce that I will be working with the very talented Amercian Soprano, Chanáe Curtis to produce a unique sound work for the exhibitions. I met Chanáe back in Spring this year and proposed the idea of making a sound work that will take some key words and phrases from Gwen John’s letters and diaries. We recently met again in London and I have asked Chanáe to experiment with the material using an intuitive and conceptual approach, to vocalise the words.
I have been intrigued by John’s voice on the written page and have wondered at the physical voice which remains mysterious. As I read the letters, some of the words were fascinating and lingered in my mind, long after the letters were locked away in the darkness of the archive.
Thanks to the curator Anneka French for sending this link to me about painter, Celia Paul’s remarks on Gwen John. She makes some beautiful responses to John’s painting techniques and references the early Self Portrait where John wears a tartan blouse and looks serene yet distant. It’s one of the paintings I’m most fond of, perhaps because I sense John painting it and looking into something that both represents her physical self and is a capsule of embodied time. I spent a long time just being present in front of this painting and it was one of the inspirations for the work I’m making today, Silent Contemplation.
oIn May I visited Paris and Dieppe again to shoot the film about Gwen John’s locations in Paris and Dieppe. A very small team of Mair (translator and all round amazing woman) Sion (camera and photography) and Iain (sound) and myself (producer) had 4 very long but wonderful days in Paris and Dieppe. Sion and Iain were incredibly dedicated during the shoot, capturing some wonderful imagery and sound. Mair, was brilliant, negotiating buildings and locations for us.
In Paris we were able to access 87 Rue du Cherche Midi, the apartment in Montparnasse where Gwen John lived in the attic rooms and painted some of her most well known works of art including ‘Interior of a Room in Paris’. It was truly a moving experience to film there and to know she had lived up in that space. Strangely, the building had been condemned as unsafe at the top spaces so the apartments were empty.
We also went to Meudon, a smart suburb of Paris, where John moved to in her later years. It is an elevated town that has far reaching views back to the city of Paris but is very quiet. We visited the church where John regularly went on Sundays to draw the local orphans and also to Rodin’s house where she used to hover at the perimeter fence in the hope of seeing her Master.
On the final day we went to Dieppe where sadly, John died and is buried. It was an incredibly bright and bracing day, with clear blue skies but a sharp wind. We did some shots on the beach which was pretty deserted, where I embodied Gwen John and walked along a wooden promenade and down towards the sea.
On the final morning before we left, we were able to film inside the Rodin archive where there are over a thousand letters written by John, some to Rodin. To my great delight, was a watercolour of John, a self portrait holding a letter that I had first seen in a book during my original residency in Aberystwyth. I had no idea it was in the archive but apparently Gwen John had gifted it to Rodin.
A recent visit to Tate Britain to view the work of Celia Paul in the painting show ‘All Too Human’, led me to investigate what Gwen John works might be in the main gallery. When I go to cities like Cardiff or London, I seek out her paintings and like her letters, they are objects that propose imaginative meetings with her.
I was delighted to find this painting, ‘A Lady Reading’ which I hadn’t seen before. Firstly, in the typical style of Gwen John’s works, it was probably the smallest work in the room. The intimacy of the scale, seemed to empower the work as I looked at it intensively. What was so engaging for me was the recognition of the room as John’s apartment in 87, Rue du Cherche-Midi in Montparnasse.
Gwen John said that she had tried to make the head of this woman look like a painting of the Virgin Mary by Albrecht Dürer, suggesting a link with traditional images of the Annunciation. However, she later decided to improve the picture and made a second version, using her own portrait instead of the idealised head shown here; this version can be seen in room 2 of the current exhibition in the Linbury galleries. (Gwen John, A Lady Reading, 1909 -11, Tate Online at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/john-a-lady-reading-n03174)
87 Rue du Cherche-Midi is the apartment that I am currently exploring access to for my film I am making and it is the one place that I am curious to see inside of. Gwen John painted this room with such sensitivity and beauty and she seemed very happy in this place, despite the turbulence of her relationship with Rodin at the time. In her earlier work ‘ A Corner of the Artist’s Room’ (1907-09) which depicts the same space, her biographer Sue Roe describes how Gwen ‘captures the essence of the atmosphere of her attic room in the rue du Cherche -Midi with its sloping ceilings and light falling across the eaves..’ (Roe, 2002: 96). Sadly Gwen was forced to move out when the Concierge’s husband became unwell and wanted to ‘move to a less stuffy room’. Gwen was asked whether she could relinquish her charming, light filled room and move to their ground floor room. She declined and they asked her to leave. Gwen subsequently moved to 29 Rue Terre Neuve in Meudon, a new chapter in her life (Roe, 2002: 107).
Roe, S. (2002) Gwen John: A Life, Vintage, London.
Images: “The Lovers”, Rodin: Mair and Anna: At the Rodin Archive:
87 rue de Cherche Midi: Le Jardin De Luxembourg.
I recently went on a research trip to Paris with my colleague Mair Hughes, to scout out the locations where Gwen John lived and worked for the film I am making. Many of the buildings were clustered in the Montparnasse area and although a couple of the buildings had gone and been replaced with modern buildings, others remained such as 87 rue de Cherche Midi (image above).
Gwen lived in an apartment on the top floor and Sue Roe’s biography of Gwen John tells of how Gwen was ‘very proud of her room. It was a beautiful space with slanting light, and it became the subject of her most serene, most harmonious paintings.’ (Roe, 2001: 86). It was where she painted one of her most beautiful paintings A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris (1907-09) on display at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
Living in small rooms in a confined city, motivated Gwen to take walks in Paris particularly around places where should could be in contact with nature like the Jardin de Luxembourg. Maria Tamboukou notes that John found consolation in the space of the gardens when her room became too oppressive as she waited for news of her lover, Auguste Rodin. Gwen wrote “In the gardens I always think of you in tranquility…” (Tamboukou, 2010: 119). We visited the gardens on a cold day between the locations of her studios/apartments in Montparnasse and it was indeed a pocket of nature in the compression of the Parisian streets. The gardens are very formally laid out and perhaps busier than when John used to visit them. They are only open now during daylight hours which is a shame as John talked about venturing there for night walks alone, a daring adventure for a woman in the early 1900s.
On the first day in Paris we had an appointment at the Musee Rodin archives to view letters from John to Rodin. There were approximately 1,000 letters and show the fervour of John’s passion at the height of her affair with Rodin. Interestingly the archive has only one in response from Rodin to John. (There are 70 letters in the NLW, however, from Rodin to John).
One of the files contained a group of letters written to ‘Chere Julie’. This confused me somewhat as I couldn’t work out who Julie was at first. Luckily I had Maria Tamboukou’s book with me and in there she explained that Julie was a fictitious character whom Gwen would write to, but would send the letters to Rodin. Gwen’s motive appears to be in creating Julie as a ‘friend/confidante’ whom she could ‘open her heart’ to but discuss matters of the heart with ‘candour’ which she knew that Rodin would receive (Tamboukou, 2010: 43- 45).
Gwen states: “When I think that it is to you that I write Julie, I am more daring than if I was told that it is my Master who will see my letter.” (Tamboukou, 2010: 44).
Images: Seafront at Dieppe: Entrance to Janval Cemetery.
We visited Dieppe on the last day of our research trip taking the journey that Gwen John made as she was dying. She arrived in Dieppe and shortly afterwards collapsed and died. She is buried in Janval Cemetery. Dieppe is a warm, friendly town with a small harbour and reminded me of the coastal towns of Kent, like Folkestone and Deal. John’s grave is unidentified but there is now a plaque in the entrance to the cemetery commemorating her final resting place. It seems fitting that the sea which was a constant presence in her life, became the bookends of her life: Tenby, Wales and Dieppe, France.