Saw the Johns’ exhibition at the Tate yesterday. Interesting contrast of styles and subject matter. Augustus John is always portrayed as the flashy genius who squandered his prodigious talent on society portraits; while Gwen John was the ascetic who concentrated on minimising her palette and painting cats. Seeing them en masse like this made me prefer Augustus John, though there was little to choose between them. Gwen John’s work was very tasteful: muted wonderful studies of light and shade. But she didn’t seem all that interested in her subjects apart from the way light fell on their faces. All her portraits were blurry, people-shapes. While Augustus’s were deeply flawed, he seemed to be genuinely interested in the person he was painting. One portrait of a Jamaican maid fairly leapt out at you: she could have been standing next to you on the bus, her face was so fresh and full of attitude.
Augustus was more interested in what other artists were doing too. There were several not-very-good attempts at different styles of painting (the Gaugin ‘gypsy’ murals were quite bad), and I think he foundered a little: being caught between the end of Pre-Raphaelites and the beginning of modernism. He wasn’t a talented enough artist to make the mental and technical leaps required of the post-Impressionists because (I think) he was too good a technician.
Anyway, I’m going to start art classes again. I might even consider a proper drawing class. I think Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographic technique was helped by his early training as a not-very-good painter. He learned how to look, and that’s what I need to do.