The building weighs less than a flower. The parasol stem dreams about being a wicker chair. A blade of wall threatens the throat of the outside world . . . or caresses it. In A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, twin concepts–Wales/France, this/that, presence/absence, times of day/times of life–trade places or blend.
Gwen John’s flat is high up, so there are no street sounds besides an approaching lullaby or chant heard as if from blocks away. I can’t place the now unknown call from my childhood that fogs the glass as it nears, but its elusive croon haunts the image.
This spare, tidy room may appear at first to be an easy read. But a few questions suggest a different story. Where does the draped blue dress end and the shadow on the floor begin? How many shades of off-white call this place home? Where are Gwen John’s beloved cats hiding (one of the subjects that this Morandi-like artist repeatedly drew and painted)? What to make of the emotional debris, which she describes in her letters, that could wound or ruin the mood of this frugal room that is also a self-portrait?
I like not knowing.
Much here is not here. I hear an imagined chant. I am standing in the room–so are you–but we are not pictured. Every floor tile looks entirely portrayed, but not a single one actually is. This hide-and-seek affair also applies to the way details of the trembly, floor-length curtain and the flower petals dissolve but seem present, or the way greyness can both dazzle and disappear.
“The grey half-tones of daybreak are not the grey half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning, light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening, it is darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.”
— From “Tess of the Durbervilles” by Thomas Hardy
Gwen John lives within Hardy’s subtlety of shades. The subject of her painting is sunlight, but is it sunlight that shines early or late in the day? Certainly, the myriad grey half-tones and their lighter counterparts that cover this canvas are active. But so are the darks. You can’t get much richer than the deep, deep shadow cast by the chair. The room may know if it’s a.m. or p.m., but I don’t.
I like not knowing.
Last month, the German landscape painter, Andi Schmitt, told me that in his native language, both dawn and dusk go by a single word, daemmerung. This contraction has the disadvantage of not answering the fundamental question of what comes next, morning or evening. On the other hand, the imprecision of the term reflects the spirit of the undefinable nature of both light and time–perhaps what Gwen John once referred to as “the infinite present”–so daemmerung has the advantage of blending poetry and fact into one ephemeral couple.
Gwen John and the sculptor Auguste Rodin were never a traditional couple. Ultimately, they didn’t blend. But there was an intimate connection between her dawn and his dusk. The 27-year-old John first met, and then began modeling for, the 63-year-old Rodin when she was at the very beginning of her art career. He was already the world’s most famous sculptor. It was during their secret 10-year love affair that she painted A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris. Did Rodin give John the heavier-than-the-building bouquet? Or was it her teacher, Whistler, who provided it for her to paint into this interior? Perhaps she picked the flowers herself and simply placed them on the table to add pink and violet to her day.
I imagine John sitting by the closed window writing one of the thousands of letters she sent Rodin; even after he ended their relationship, John continued writing him. I imagine a precious few letters from the many he sent her, buried within the midnight of the table’s drawer. No chance of dammerung there unless you pull the dot of the knob and let in the day.
What I envision inside the drawer are fading feelings inked across delicate, off-white stationary. The letters are stacked according to dates written. Nothing out of order in John’s portrayal of her clean, well-lighted place. Daytime rather than night, a cozy apartment rather than a public bar, otherwise this attic of an 18th-century house located at 87 rue du Cherche Midi in Montparnasse could be the kind of setting the old widower was looking for in Hemingway’s brilliant short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”
“ . . . and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.”
Actually, this apartment was probably not what he sought. After all, the old man would be as alone here as he would be if he left the bar in the Hemingway classic and reluctantly returned to his own vacant home.
“It was a nothing that he knew too well. . . . It was only that a light was all he needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was . . . “
And speaking of Hemingway, the Welsh woman occasionally paints as crisply as the American writes. Short sentences. Simple shapes. Look at the sharp-edged triangle that owns the wall in her painting or at the cushion that owns the chair. The tabletop, too. But one of the strengths of John’s mostly soft-edged, layered, powerfully fragile image is that the artist’s apartment keeps its secrets, teasing us with measured nuances. What is not stated in this merely foot-high canvas gives scale to what is. Here, absence is presence, which, like the glazing of dawn with dusk, is precise in its ambiguity.
Did the artist start or end her day with a walk? Is the frail parasol or umbrella protection from strong, bright sun, or is there a forecast of rain? Dawn or dusk? I suspect that whoever recently warmed the chair’s cushion has just enjoyed a wide-eyed wake-up yawn. But it could be “the drowsy reverse.” I like not knowing.
The Welsh artist, who drifted to France and spent the rest of her life there, does not paint the objects in this interior. She paints the sunlight, with its warm and cool shadows and haze that wafts across and around her cast of common characters. If we go by what’s outside, what’s inside is floating: wicker surrounding a cushiony cloud, a table buoyed by the breathtaking rhythm of a curtain’s hem, the drift of a puffy parasol, an off-white crown of flowers drinking from an off-center glass.
And then there is the building. Standing bright as day in a kind of spiritual light, it is more unseen than seen. Come out, come out wherever you are. (Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the hide-and-seek chant that had eluded me. Maybe.)
The window: If I had to pick my favorite part of this composition, that’d be it. Today. What a piece of painting! It blends fantasy into the bleached atmospherics of a Monet cathedral and the alabaster abstractions of a Robert Ryman canvas. For me, Melville’s albino Moby makes a phantom cameo appearance. The Great White floats in on a cloud, threatening Gwen John’s room . . . parasol, blade of wall, wicker chair, and all. What’s outside the window is there and not there, swollen and sublime in the magic of its snow-colored glory.
The painter took Wales to France,
where she covered Welsh mist with French lace.
Dusk and dawn trade dreams
in a clean, well-lighted place.
I spent three weeks during this past February and March at the magical Ballinglen Arts Foundation, where I wrote most of this article and where I saw life through the kind of thick light and air from that part of the world where Gwen John grew up. Andi, is there a single German word that means “bad/glorious weather?” Thank you Úna Forde and Chrissie Tighe for your on-site management of such a friendly, inspiring program. For setting me up to appreciate the fickle climate in A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, I thank the west Irish coast in winter. It rained part of almost every day, the sky’s colors and tones slipping from the bliss of a Cezanne blue and a Gwen John white to the grey of a seagull’s egg, sometimes as fast and wild as the flap of a wing. Like dammerung, there was never a hint what would come next.
I liked not knowing.
This text is dedicated to Peter Maxwell, who passed away in March. He and his wife, Margo Dolan, generously co-founded the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in 1992.
Barry Nemett, who has taught full-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) since 1971, has exhibited his artwork throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Since receiving his MFA degree from Yale University and receiving a Fulbright/ITT International Travel Fellowship to Spain, he has lectured worldwide, curated numerous traveling exhibitions, and has been a recipient of resident artist grants in the United States, Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and Japan. www.barrynemett.com