Ex­hi­bi­tion

More than 80 years after Christo­pher Wood’s pre­ma­ture death, his paintings have kept their fresh­ness, finds Laura Gas­coigne

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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

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