Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gwen John, Fenella Lovell & "rasa"


Coxsoft Art Works remarked: "Here are two portraits of her friend Fenella Lovell, not exactly a bundle of laughs with or without her clothes on! She looks more like a caricature than a real girl. You can see why Gwen didn't make it big. A little imagination required here, I think."

Rather cruel. Gwen John, apparently seduced and abandoned by Rodin, overshadowed by Augustus John, her brother-- see his "Nirvana,or the Girl by the Cliff" at the very bottom of my blog panel on the right-- deserves more sympathy, and more acclaim. I place her-- a Welsh artist from early last century-- and her model in the real world, where we don't all match centerfolds or pinups. An artist demands, in his or her vocation, a commitment to giving us the same conviction that he or she sees within the craft, the medium, through which the subject bears witness to a dimension that art illuminates. Taking the gender of the artist out of the judgment of the work, why the Coxsoft putdown? Perhaps the expectation that a nude woman's representation inspires unabashed eroticism, and that the undraped female figure elicits caricatured passion. But, need this simplistic equation of voluptuousness with curves, or frigidity with lines, be the case?

If Modigliani, one of my favorite artists as it happens, could portray elongated femmes, and if El Greco gained earlier acclaim for the same dimension, why not Gwen John? There's a dispassionate gaze that accompanies Gwen's depiction of Fenella.

As the cliché gets twisted, I'm no art critic, but I know what I like. Fenella's a clever twist on the clothed maja/ naked maja of Goya, perhaps. As with Goya, a quiet transition hints, as a jump cut from a skilled film editor is masked, between the monochromatic drawing and the muted painting. The bold look, I'd contend, of Fenella on the right shows not a shrinking violet but a delicate daisy, I don't see a wallflower but an expectant bloom in her eyes meeting ours. This may be a secret quality, one that eludes rather than engages our eyes, but patience evokes it.

There's a patience, an invitation in this depiction. I deny the off-putting quality here. Rather, I offer this as a truer portrayal of how a woman looks at us looking at her. With the defense of clothes, without the distraction of garments, Fenella presents herself to her friend Gwen, and thus Gwen gives her friend's boldness, beneath her demure composure, to us. After all, she is robed and disrobing, and this transition expresses her confidence as well as her reluctance.

I give you my take on Gwen's take on Fenella. She coolly takes the measure of us as we peer at her. Her power lies in her tensed strength that defies its slender stance. I admire both the model's bravery and the artist's clarity. This critique may not play into the expectation that no clothes equals yes to sex, but I hazard that Gwen John's unsparing eye of her friend portrays its own engaging, if chillier and clearer, more honest look at the female exposed to her gaze, and ours.

This morning, I learned a new term, "rasa," in a book about Indian culture. John Bowker's "Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions" defines it thus: "Rasa (Skt., ‘relish’, ‘passion’). Hindu state of spiritual ecstasy in union with the divine. In a more general way, it then refers to the eight different sentiments or emotions, e.g. raudra (see also ART)." I also found out it's related to "sap" or "juice," that is, the essential flavor of the artistic impact, within a blend of other aesthetic ingredients.

Reminding myself of what I'd written above about Gwen John, I remembered that after she was dumped-- at an early age-- by her lover Rodin, she gravitated towards religion, and in a French convent, she painted and grew closer towards faith, although remaining a laywoman. I thought about the "rasa" in the paintings above. Fenella may present us with an analogy to a religious, ascetic appreciation of the body: perhaps more astringent a taste, more bittersweet a sap, a flavor less appealing to most, but to a few, preferred and desirable, if in a severe, harsher, sharper way. Maybe you will view her paintings, find her female gaze of the female body, and find your own tastes matched, spurned, or savored. That's the imagination required. Art, like appetites of other sorts, seeks its own intangible appeal by the preparation of the tangible.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The meaning of rasa as essence or flavour, as applied to painting, was well treated in Tom Stoppard's play In the Native State.