Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Lover and a Fighter

Perhaps the most pugnacious and sex-obsessed artist of his time, Augustus John knew and painted most of the great figures of British history and arts in the first half of the twentieth century, such as Wyndham Lewis (above, from 1905). Born January 14, 1878, John claimed that, after diving into shallow water and cracking his skull open on a rock, genius flowed forth from his pen and brush. With his equally never-ending libido, John continually tried “to draw the women he bedded, and bed the women he drew,” as one critic put it. Both a barroom brawler and a bravura portraitist, John’s life story is as entangled and entertaining as few others in modern art history.

Adding another level of complexity to his complex love life was John’s sister, Gwen John, who was also an artist. (The Tate exhibited the siblings’ work together in 2005.) While Augustus simultaneously juggled his marriage with his wife, Ida, during his affair with his mistress, Dorelia, Gwen upset the entire balance by "eloping" with Dorelia. Later, Gwen traveled to France and became the mistress of Rodin, who soon tired from her smothering possessiveness and dropped her. Amidst this pandemonium, Augustus found the energy to portray such figures as T.E. Lawrence (above, from 1919) in full “Lawrence of Arabia” regalia.

John painted some of the most perceptive portraits of the literary figures of his age, including W.B. Yeats (above, from 1907), George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, and Dylan Thomas. (He met Thomas, naturally, in a bar and even introduced Thomas to his future wife.) Aside from these stunning portraits, John’s main focus was, of course, on drawing the female nude. John’s nudes resemble those drawn by Gustav Klimt in their troubling intimacy and wide array of poses. John’s personal life always remained a mess. His mistress Dorelia, after taking his sister Gwen as a lover, later took John’s wife Ida as a lover, too. Augustus, Dorelia, and Ida all lived together in Paris for a time, until John decided that three really was a crowd and returned to London in search of a new mistress. The myth of the bohemian artist exclusively sleeping and painting his way through life is usually just a myth, but Augustus John lived that myth exhaustively to the end of his days.