More than 80 years after Christopher Wood’s premature death, his paintings have kept their freshness, finds Laura Gascoigne
Laura Gascoigne finds freshness in the paintings of Christopher Wood
The most delightful of Parisians and charming of Londoners’ is how Le Petit Journal described Christopher Wood on his Paris debut at the Bernheim Jeune gallery in May 1930. ‘ Our painter pours onto his canvases expanses of grey sky, stretches of green water, spanking white houses, heavy shapes of sailors and particularly boats. One feels that Mr Wood handles them with love.’
Since leaving London nine years earlier to try his luck in the French capital, the 29-yearold english painter seemed to have the modern art world at his feet, having conquered Paris society with his good looks, charm and distinctive ‘style anglais’, set off by the cane he carried for a slight limp. But what Parisian sophisticates found most appealing was the boyish air of incorruptible innocence he managed to retain, despite moving in a circle that included Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev and the notoriously corrupting Jean Cocteau.
Wood had set his hopes high. Six months after arriving in Paris, he had written to his mother: ‘I have decided to try and be the greatest painter that has ever lived.’ For an untrained artist, he was remarkably persuasive, attracting a succession of rich and influential protectors, male and female, most of whom were in love with him. Some smoked opium and introduced him to the drug, an expensive habit for a penniless young artist. When the habit grew into an addiction, it drained his finances and shredded his nerves. Three months after the Bernheim Jeune exhibition, he threw himself under a train at Salisbury station.
Since then, inevitably, his tragic death has overshadowed his art, but, now, Wood’s art is being reassessed by Pallant house Gallery in an exhibition of 80
I have decided to try and be the greatest painter that has ever lived
works spanning his 10-year career. The first thing that strikes you, walking through the galleries, is the apparent mismatch between the story of the artist’s drug-addled death and the unspoiled charm of his paintings.
Long before his discovery with his friend Ben Nicholson of the naïve painter Alfred Wallis in St Ives in 1928—and decades before the elderly Picasso made his famous remark about relearning to paint like a child—wood had resolved to return to the simple vision of childhood. Unlike Picasso, he didn’t have to unlearn to paint like Raphael, as he never knew. His strengths were a fresh eye and an unselfconscious manner, a seductive combination that overrides any weaknesses in drawing.
As a self-taught artist, Wood learned to improvise. When he wanted an effect, he found his own way of achieving it, dabbing snowflakes in Howard Hodgkinlike splodges over the fells in Cumberland Landscape (1928) or scraping back the paint surface to give texture to the cliffs in Calvary at Douarnenez (1930). His touch was his own, but his ideas—initially at least—were borrowed from Cézanne, Matisse, Dufy, Marquet and Picasso.
Measured by Picasso’s other dictum that good artists borrow, but great artists steal, Wood was not a great artist. He recognised as much when he wrote to his mother after three years in Paris: ‘If one is incapable of great things, do the small ones with utmost fidelity.’
The pictures he painted, with a few exceptions, were modest in scale and unpretentious in subject: harbour scenes in Cornwall and Brittany, fellsides in Cumberland, vases of flowers on windowsills. Like an amateur, he painted what he loved, but, unlike an amateur, he rarely painted on the spot. He worked from memory and imagination.
He was never Surrealist, yet several of his images— especially those involving animals— inhabit a space between dream and reality. The strangely life-like poses of his China Dogs in a St Ives Window (1926) make us question whether these cuddly Staffordshire spaniels are ceramic or flesh and blood and the fox fur on the lap of Mlle Bourgoint (1929) appears to come alive under the sitter’s caress. Only in late paintings such as The Yellow Man (1930), inspired by his designs for the circus-themed ballet Luna Park, does he cross over into the world of dreams.
‘His best paintings are at the same time radiant and faintly sinister,’ wrote the English critic Eric Newton after Wood’s death. ‘There is an unclouded purity, at times a rapture in his pictures, but there is also a thunderstorm somewhere in the neighbourhood.’ The ultimate mystery of this exhibition, and of Wood’s short life, is that as the storm clouds gathered over his future, the final landscapes he painted in Brittany are flooded with an almost crystalline light.
‘Christopher Wood: Sophisticated Primitive’ is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until October 2 (01243 774557; www.pallant.org.uk) Next week: ‘Painters’ Paintings’ at the National Gallery
Wood’s naïve style shows a fresh and playful lyricism in his whimsical China Dogs in a St Ives Window (1926)
Below: One of Wood’s Cumberland landscapes painted in 1928, here showing Northrigg Hill, which was also painted by Ben and Winifred Nicholson around this time
Above: In Fair at Neuilly (1923), the jostling scene is shown in a pattern of flattened colours and shapes