by Roderick Conway Morris

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Christopher Wood's Brief Life, Richly Expressed

By Roderick Conway Morris
CHICHESTER, England 8 September 2016
Kettle's Yard, Cambridge
Self-portrait by Christopher Wood, 1927



'I have decided to try to be the greatest painter that has ever lived,' Christopher Wood wrote to his mother from Paris in 1922. 'I want to paint everything which touches the human being.'

His career was brilliant, meteoric and tragically short, ending eight years later when, at the age of 29, he took his own life. His output was phenomenal: a retrospective in London in 1938 contained 500 paintings and 400 watercolors and drawings.

The works are now widely dispersed in public and private collections, but 60 of them have now been brought together at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, England, for 'Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive.' The show, based on a decade of research and drawing on Wood's letters to his mother, fellow artists and others close to him, has been curated by Katy Norris and runs until Oct. 2.

Wood was born near Liverpool in 1901, to a doctor father and a mother whose Cornish forebears included admirals in the Royal Navy. A football injury in his early teens led to severe blood poisoning and left him with a permanent limp. During his recovery, his mother encouraged him to take up watercolors.

At the age of 19, Wood, a handsome and personable young man, began an apprenticeship with a fruit importer in London. A chance meeting with the wealthy art collector and financier Alphonse Kahn led to an invitation to Paris in 1921.

Kahn's collection included works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. By the end of the year, Wood had been taken up by another connoisseur and socialite, the Chilean diplomat José Antonio de Gandarillas, who was to be his principal patron and companion for the next six years.

In 1922 Gandarillas took Wood on an extended grand tour, which allowed the artist to study at first hand the masters of the past in the Low Countries, Italy and Central Europe, but also extended to Greece, Turkey and North Africa. Opium smoking was also fashionable in the bohemian circles they frequented, and Wood became a lifelong addict.

The earliest paintings in the first room of the show, 'An Education,' reveal a notable level of accomplishment for a painter who, until he arrived in Paris, was self-taught. Once there, he studied at the Académie Julian and took lessons from other painters, among them the Fauvist André Derain and the Nabis group luminary Maurice Denis.

Wood displayed a knack for producing works in the styles of contemporary masters. His 'Still Life with a Tureen and Fruit' is a clear tribute to Cézanne, for example; a trio of flower paintings in jugs and vases, to Van Gogh; 'Paris Snow Scene,' to Utrillo; and 'The Seine at Passy,' to Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Another palpable influence was Henri Rousseau, whose quirky 'primitive' paintings attracted a wide range of admirers among the avant-garde in Paris and beyond.

Wood's Picasso-esque 'Fair at Neuilly' was painted before he met the Spanish artist in 1923. A friendship developed between them, and Picasso, unusually for him, was happy to nurture the aspiring young artist's skills. After meeting Jean Cocteau in 1924, Wood shared a studio with him. No other English artist won such warm acceptance into Paris avant-garde circles at the time.

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes brought together many of the leading progressive composers, performers, artists and designers of those times, and the impact of this milieu on Wood's work is revealed in the second room, 'Theatrical Parallels.' These include nude and clothed portraits of Wood's lover, Jeanne Bourgoint, and of the English composer Constance Lambert, as well as set design proposals (ultimately unused) for new Diaghilev ballets.

Out of these came Wood's first large-scale work: 'Beach Scene with Bathers, Piers and Ships,' a six-part screen inspired by Diaghilev productions, in particular 'Le Train Bleu' and 'Les Matelots.' The work brought Wood to the attention of the London beau monde when it was purchased by the Earl of Lathom and used as a backdrop for photos of Lady Mountbatten, published in Vogue and later acquired by the English shipping heiress Nancy Cunard.

'Beach Scene' was painted by Wood while he was staying in Gandarillas's London apartment, and he hoped to build on its success to make his mark in his home country. He met the artist couple Ben and Winifred Nicholson in 1926 and found that his ideas on reforming English art by creating simpler, more direct modes of expression chimed with theirs. This initiated a mutually beneficial collaboration, evidenced by the striking works in the third room, 'English Horizons,' which show Wood's exploration of new themes. At the beginning of 1927 the Nicholsons invited Wood to join the progressive '7&5' artists' society, and he exhibited with them that spring.

After years of concentrated experimentation, Wood reached a turning point in establishing his distinctive style when he was invited to join the Nicholsons at Winifred's remote house, Bankshead, amid the hills of Cumbria in the spring of 1928. Here he fully engaged with landscape for the first time and began to destroy works with which he was not wholly satisfied: He left Cumbria with only seven paintings, three of which are on show here, but with a new sense of confidence, writing to his mother: 'I am absolutely on the verge of the real thing after what I saw & learnt at Bankshead.'

Wood had briefly visited St. Ives in Cornwall in 1926, producing the witty and colorful 'China Dogs in a St. Ives Window,' displayed in the show. In August 1928 he returned to Cornwall with the Nicholsons, and became enchanted with seascapes and small fishing communities, themes that were substantially to occupy him till his untimely death. Among the memorable works included here are 'A Cornish Window,' 'Anemones in a Cornish Window' and 'Herring Fisher's Goodbye.'

During that summer the visitors encountered the retired merchant seaman and naïve painter Alfred Wallis, and when the Nicholsons departed, Wood stayed on into the winter, visiting Wallis almost daily. He found the old sea-salt's productions inspiring for their vigor and simplicity in the use of color, which clearly informed such works as 'Harbor in the Hills' and 'Porthmeor Beach.'

The following summer Wood went on a painting expedition to Brittany, settling for some weeks in Tréboul in the Cornouaille area (the name of which derives from the same root as Cornwall, with which Brittany has ancient cultural and linguistic connections). His delight in the many similarities of life and landscape between the two regions, and his talents as a draftsman, are apparent in a number of paintings, including closely observed renderings of fishing vessels. He also recorded images of the local people's Catholic devotion, manifested in their churches, calvaries and religious processions.

But he was increasingly suffering the negative effects of his opium addiction and struggling with the conflict between the hedonistic social life he led in Paris and his immersion in such isolated communities as Tréboul during spells of intense painting activity. Also among the fruits of this stay, featured in a section called 'Gathering Storm Clouds,' is 'Ulysses and the Sirens (Mermaids),' a dream-like scene of a traditional Breton fishing boat being enticed ashore by a bevy of spectral naked girls, some anomalously wearing traditional Breton lace caps. The work has been interpreted as an allegory of Wood's sense of helplessness in resisting the temptations of the sophisticated but decadent lifestyle into which he was drawn in Paris.

The first Brittany paintings secured for the artist an exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1930. But a pair of pictures painted at the house where Wood stayed during the show — 'The Artist's Cottage near Paris,' a sunny day scene, and 'Little House by Night,' a shadowy, brooding image of the house after nightfall — again suggest a mental disquiet.

In the summer of 1930, Wood returned to Tréboul to create works for a new gallery in London to be opened by the dealer and collector Lucy Wertheim. He painted 40 pictures in less than six weeks; seven of the works are shown in the final section, 'Swan Song.' Some have a highly colored, almost visionary quality, while others are more ominous, such 'Tréboul, the Blue Sea,' in which a fishing vessel is seemingly impelled by the wind onto a rocky coast.

During August the artist returned to England to meet his mother and sister in Salisbury. On leaving them, apparently suffering from opium withdrawal, he went to the station and threw himself under an express train — leaving behind him a remarkable legacy of work, and many unanswerable questions about what direction his art might have taken had he lived longer.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024