Christopher Wood, Sophisticated Primitive (Pallant House, 2 July–2 October 2016)
There is a shadow over the art of Christopher Wood:
Aged twenty-nine, having just had tea with his mother, he threw himself under a train at Salisbury and was killed.
In some ways, I felt the shadow of Vincent van Gogh over him – the embrace of decadence, the use of substances, the dying too young by his own hand.
In the entrance to the exhibition there is a painting which could have been a van Gogh, Lemons in a Blue Basket (1922), where the juxtapositions of yellows and blues recall the Dutch painter’s experimentation with the colour wheel. Wood definitely acknowledged an influence. Like van Gogh, he romanticised peasant life as authentic, and there seems to be a split between the Dionysian, decadent, damned city and the Apollonian redemptive countryside. But there were many more influences – I’m not sure he ever quite found his own voice.
Having been born in Knowsley, Liverpool, and thinking of going into medicine or architecture, he shifted gear to art, thanks to a meeting with Augustus John, apparently the most significant British painter of the time. A collector, Alphone Kahn, invited him to Paris, where he went in 1921 at the age of 21. There he trained at the Académie Julian and met artists such as Picasso, the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the artist and author Jean Cocteau. Cocteau was to say of “In Christopher Wood there is no malice. There is a frankness, a naivety of a young dog who has not had the illness of time” and Pallant Gallery seem to suggest that Wood, fell under Cocteau’s spell. The signage tells us “he became firmly acquainted with the influential artist and writer Jean Cocteau”, which I thought very odd phrasing. Wood met and became the lover of Francis Rose, 4th Baronet of the Montreal Roses, a painter for the Ballets Russes and later married to Dorothy Carrington for twenty-four years, although I suspect they spent much time in other countries. Pallant call him “this nubile aesthete”. Another young man, Jean Bourgoint, was described as being “devoured” by Cocteau, and Jean and his sister Jeanne became the models for Paul and Elisabeth in Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (1929). Jeanne was to emulate Elisabeth’s suicide and Jean retreated to a Trappist monastery after her death.
This exhibition informs us that Wood took a “pragmatic personal stance of convenient bisexuality”, with “wild speculation” that Wood was in a relationship with the Chilean diplomat Antonio de Gandarillas (what is the evidence? – Kettle’s Yard’s book on Wood states they were lovers) and that the boyishly good-looking composer Constant Lambert was rather too keen on him (the Pallant tells us he had “a boyish beauty”), whilst he had a relationship with Jeanne, with heiress Meraud Guinness and later with a Russian, Frosca Munster.
I’m not qualified to rule. Maybe he was bisexual, but the Pallant is a little coy (as they were over Edward Burra, where they assumed that the giggling girls that he referred to in a letter were friends of his sister rather than gay men). Perhaps he was a tease, hoping that the wealthy homosexual society he was part of would keep him supplied with canvas, paint and opium. Perhaps, with the Oscar Wilde trial a living memory, he had relationships with women for the sake of propriety. I have to say my gaydar is triggered by his work – and I get the sense of a very fluid identity, which expresses itself in his shifting style.
Late in the exhibition there is Nude Boy in a Bedroom (1930), a portrait of Rose. Rose and Wood were apparently lovers – the painting shows a rear view of Rose stood at a sink, the rear emphasised. Next to him is a chair, painted at a somewhat Van Goghian angle, and on the white linened bed are three Tarot cards, the same three to be found in Calvary at Douarnenez (1930). There are several pictures of Jean Bourgoint – my favourite of which is from Kettle’s Yard and I last saw at the Jedward, Boy with Cat (Jean Bourgoint) (1926): a young man in grey-brown jacket, blue shirt, pink and white striped tie, with pink lips and a bit of a young Julian Clary look about him, seated on a green chair. In his lap is a Siamese cat, claws out, seemingly ready to pounce.
Meanwhile, we see two pictures of Jeanne – one, The Bather (1925-26) shows her reclining (just about) in a red swimming costume on a beach, a conical shell pointing to one breast, the other breast pointing toward a ship on the horizon and a lighthouse directly above her crotch area. These all seem rather phallic. The other picture, Mme Bourgoint (Woman with Fox) (1929), sees her in a dark suit and white top on a floral armchair, a fox laying rather oddly in her lap.
The exhibition begins with a painting of Landscape, Vence (1925), although my memory is the frame labels it Venice. Rather hilly, Venice. Then there is a wall of still lives – Still Life with a Tureen and Fruit, Flowers in a Black Jug, Dahlias in a Red Jug, Irises in a Tall Vase – after Paul Cezanne, although Van Gogh’s sunflowers cannot be far behind, and later we see this fitting into a dialogue with Winnifred Nicholson. Cezanne also feeds into The Card Players (1922) – playing cards and Tarot will recur – but Wood adds more players and shifts the perspective. When painting Buildings at Passis, Paris (1927) he feels more Cubist, more Braque, and he also comes under the influence of Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck and Fauvism.
His 1927 Self-Portrait identifies him as a harlequin figure, with triangles on his jumper, echoing Picasso’s Rose Period. He is curiously flat, although his belt is flapping suggestively. Paris, behind him, is much more three dimensional, reflecting his embrace of his training in conflict with an inclination to primitivism, to which I shall return. Both Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall had seen themselves as clowns or acrobats – and a strange clownish/circus figures appears near Minton Place, London, in The Yellow Man (1930), echoing his theatre designs.
He had wanted to design sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Romeo and Juliet, but the Russian turned to Surrealists – which Wood detested – and Jean Miró and Max Ernst. (By coincidence, I heard the ballet as part of this year’s Proms and saw one of Miró’s designs in Edinburgh.) Wood’s illustrations have a simplicity, playing out the backstage but onstage nature of the ballet and he tried to design for further work: An English Country Life and Luna Park (1930), which opened in Manchester.
Meanwhile, he had painted Exercises (1925), set in an indoor pool, full of naked men in and out of the water, including a figure on a trapeze. The composition also includes men in Edwardian suits – and I’m reaching for Susan Sontag’s notion of camp, with the possibility that this is knowing rather than naïve camp. His Beach Scene with Bathers, Piers and Ships (1927), painted on a screen in six sections, depicts three men pulling a boat ashore and other sailors, alongside naked or topless women. The colour of the sea is taken up in the colours of the dressed and shorts, and there is a peculiar rope that surreally echoes a fish and a snake. The work was used in fashion photoshoots in Vogue and was later bought by writer, activist and shipping heiress Nancy Cunard.
Through the mid-1920s, he met up with various artists who were both to influence his style and to help his progress. Ben and Winnifred Nicholson were key players – Winnifred kept sending flowers to Kit, and they became subjects of some of this paintings, and some of his compositions echo her paintings. Kit and Ben painted together in Cumberland, as well as in Cornwall – Nicholson here seems closer to Wood’s style than vice versa – and Ben helped him join the 7&5 group of painters in London. Both showed at the Bernheim Jeune Gallery, Paris, in May 1930
Most significantly they both met and befriended the former St Ives sailor and grocer, Alfred Wallis, who had turned to painting after the death of his much older wife. Wood saw in Wallis a naïve primitivism, which he had already been turned onto by his friendship with Cedric Morris. Wallis would size boats or lighthouses in his compositions according to their significance, and whilst it turns out his reconstructions of ships from memory were accurate, he would alter landscapes at will. It feels as if Wood wanted to unlearn the formal teaching he had had – he could leave paintings unfinished or underpainted, he could scratch away at the surface. There was a sense for Wood that Wallis had the kind of primitive existence that Vincent van Gogh saw in the peasants in the south of France, with both artist patronising their romanticised inspiration – whilst Wallis was able to supplement his income by selling paintings to Jim Ede (and hence to the Tae and what was to become Kettle’s Yard), he was unable to keep up with his mortgage and had to rent his house in St Ives, before moving to and dying in a workhouse.
Wood, meanwhile, would paint St Ives as a version of Cumberland, albeit with tin mines, and a feel of St Ives and Mousehole can be found in his later paintings of Brittany. The sailors outside the Ship Inn could just as easily be in France. His return to France in 1930 was the result of a need to produce new work for an exhibition at the Wertheim Gallery in London – he produced something like forty paintings in six weeks June-July 1930. He was taking more opium than before and sometimes smoked the dregs of his pipe, imbibing a stronger toke.
The ending seems inevitable. I’ve already noted his Dionysian/Apollonian split – it is telling that he oscillated between finding the Nicholsons a calming influence and getting bored at their squareness. There are two paintings of a place he lived in Paris, The Artist’s Cottage near Paris (1930) and Little House by Night (1930), one day, one night, one calming, one menacing. Richard Ingleby, Wood’s biographer, nods toward Jekyll and Hyde – but it is worth noting that even the day version has a menacing wall towering over the cottage.
Wood returned by boat and train to England, carrying a pistol and his opium pipe, beginning to be convinced he was being followed. After tea with his mother and sister, he fell under a train at Salisbury station. The Pallant Gallery suggest it was a suicide, Kettle’s Yard’s book seems more convinced it was a terrible accident. But note that van Gogh committed suicide – with a gun rather than jumping in front of a train – so maybe it has a terrible homage.
Wood was on the verge of becoming the greatest English painter of his age – and like van Gogh and Mozart we can only speculate on where his talent would have taken him. Whilst the Wertheim Gallery was cancelled, a posthumous exhibition was held in February 1931, as well as one at the Lefevre Gallery in 1932. He was included at the 1938 Venice Biennale and a massive retrospective at the Redfern Gallery in 1938 outdrew the considerable crowds for Picasso’s Guernica at the Whitechapel Gallery. Like many other British painters of his era — Paul Nash, Eric Ravillious and parts of Ben Nicholson’s work spring to mind — there was a romanticism but also a modernism. I’m not sure he ever quite found his own style — but it feels as if he was absorbing that of every one around him and wanted to be all things to all people.
- Elizabeth A. Fisher, Jane Morgans and Andrew Nairne, Christopher Wood (Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard, 2013)
- Katy Norris, Christopher Wood (Chichester: Pallant House, 2016)