Gwen John was an unconventional artist and indeed (for her time) an unconventional woman. Sue Hubbard’s God’s Little Artist is a suitably unconventional biography of sorts, a series of evocative poetic sketches that trace the arc of John’s life from her childhood in Tenby, to studying at the Slade School Of Art in London, to living, loving and working in Paris, to her death in Dieppe shortly after the start of World War II.
At the heart of the sequence are several erotically charged poems about her lover Auguste Rodin, for whom she was a life model. Her obsession with the sculptor was never truly reciprocated, and when their decade-long affair fizzled out, Hubbard suggests, John repudiated her body and “[i]ts fleshy needs, / its urgent desires”, seeking solace in solitude, religion and artistic creation.
Like her subject, Hubbard finds “poetry in ordinary things”, and the later verses are suffused with the same sense of melancholic introspection as is conveyed by many of John’s portraits. The astute characterisation of John’s style in Blue – “Working little by little towards abstraction, / her drawings speak by quiet suggestion, / blocked in, rather than described / with an emphatic line” – betrays Hubbard’s background as a professional art critic, but also serves as a neat metaphor for her own subtle poetic technique.
God’s Little Artist, Sue Hubbard (Seren)
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD