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Friday, August 29, 2014

Augustus Edwin John

Augustus John, "Larger then Life," 1952.
Dashing and dangerous, 1928.
Lord Leverthulme, 1920,
Augustus John--rejected by the lord.
Today we refer to them as "larger than life." The world is full of such figures, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Chris Christie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Bill too, I suppose. However I cannot think of a single painter, sculptor, or even film maker alive today (with the possible exception of Steven Spielberg) who fits that description. Yet the history of art is full of such individuals, starting with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O'Keeffe, Warhol, Dali, and perhaps one or two others, all of whom are quite dead. The designation has to do with more than just talent. All these were artists were famous, but in each case, their distinctive, often flamboyant, personalities were at least as important as their talent. In some cases, their carefully cultivated image all but overwhelmed their talent (Dali, for instance). Most ring up instant recognition of their work, even their faces, at just the mention of their first or last names. As you may or may not have noticed, none of the artists I mentioned above were British. Let me add one more name to that list, a Brit who so perfectly fits the "larger than life" description it might have been coined with him in mind--Augustus Edwin John.
Moses and the Brazen Serpent, 1898, Augustus John, an early prize-winning work.
Augustus John, Self-portrait, 1913
If you've never heard of him, keep in mind, the designation "larger than life" can be somewhat transient. As they saying goes, fame is fickle. In the long run, talent dominates and determines the artist's lasting place in art history. If Augustus John, despite his overwhelming persona, is little remembered today, it's because his talent was much more modest than that of the art demi-gods recalled above. Augustus John was a portrait painter, born in Wales in 1878. His portraits have a vibrant, spontaneous, style capturing the personality and appearance of their subjects with a devastating honesty and insight (sometimes a little too insightfully and honestly). One of his clients, Lord Leverhulme (above, right), hated his portrait so much he had the head cut out and stored away in his safe, then sent the desecrated remains back to the artist.
Jamaican Landscape, 1937, Augustus John. As a landscape artist, John was mediocre at best. This is one of his better works deriving from a 1937 vacation in Jamaica.
T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), 
1919, Augustus John.
In terms of style, Augustus John has been compared not unfavorably with Matisse and Gauguin. Whatever the case, his personality and lifestyle certainly compares to that of Gauguin. He was thoroughly bohemian, a heavy drinker, carouser, womanizer, barroom brawler, get the idea. Picasso, who John admired from early days, said: “John is the best bad painter in England.” A friend recalled, "John drank enthusiastically, loved the music hall, particularly the Bedford, in Camden Town. He threw himself into anarchist gatherings held in the Tottenham Court Road, but most of all he fornicated." As near as I can tell he fathered eight children with two wives and a mistress or two. He married his first wife, Ida, in 1898, then in 1903, moved his life-long mistress, Dorelia, in with them where she remained for sixty-five years. After Ida's death, Dorelia much later became his second wife. Virtually every one of his children excelled in later life as artists, writers, or military leaders. And though he knew nearly all the leading figures in British society and the arts during the early 1900s, many of which he painted, many of which were in awe of him personally, they likewise tended to hold him at arms length. Though they admired his talent, he was considered "dangerous." Women, as they say, "fell at his feet," men (perhaps envious) often detested him. Few who knew him would have invited him home to dinner.

Lyric Fantasy, 1913-14, Augustus John--all the women of his life,
including his deceased first wife, Ida (in black at the far right).
John's fame and favor as the most outstanding portrait artist in England was relatively short lived, mostly from the turn of the century until World War I. During the war, he was a field artist, painting portraits of heroic soldiers, until tossed out of the army for brawling in a bar. After the war, though he continued to prodigiously paint portraits of the rich and famous for another twenty or thirty years, his Post-impressionist style quickly passed from favor, his work seen by critics as having degenerated into "flashiness and bombast," as one put it. Nonetheless, his list of clients included such British notables as T.E. Lawrence (above, left), Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Tallulah Bankhead (below), George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Dylan Thomas, and British Prime Minister during WW I, David Lloyd George.

Augustus John with American
actress, Tallulah Bankhead.
Tallulah Bankhead,
1929, Augustus John
Key to Augustus John's portrait style was his method of painting as he, himself, explained it:
"Make a puddle of paint on your palette consisting of the predominant colour of your model's face and ranging from dark to light. Having sketched the features, being most careful of the proportions, apply a skin of paint from your preparation, only varying the mixture with enough red for the lips and cheeks and grey for the eyeballs. The latter will need touches of white and probably some blue, black, brown, or green. If you stick to your puddle (assuming that it was correctly prepared), your portrait should be finished in an hour or so, and be ready for obliteration before the paint dries, when you start afresh."
The last line suggests the artist had a sense of humor too.

Dorelia Reclining, 1906-10, Augustus John, his mistress, later his second wife. 

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