Mark Gertler 1891-1939


Mary Moore Collection, Switzerland

Private Collection 


Sarah MacDougall, Mark Gertler Works 1912-28 - A Tremendous Show of Vitality, Piano Nobile, London, 2012

This wooden panel contains not just one, or even two, but three remarkable works by Mark Gertler, all executed between 1915 and 1916, the year of his most important work, the strident and iconic, anti-war painting, Merry-Go-Round (1916, Tate).

On the surface is an intriguing landscape in oils painted in situ in July 1916 at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s celebrated Garsington manor in Oxfordshire, from where Gertler wrote to the Russian translator S S Koteliansky that he had started a picture ‘from the lawn looking on to the fatal pond’ (so-called after he almost drowned there). This particular composition with the rectangular pond at its centre bounded by trees, and with an upright yew on the left grounding the composition, was a favourite of Gertler’s. It relates closely to a larger, square painting of the same view in Leeds City Art Gallery with which it shares its lush predominantly green palette and was to be the first of many similar landscapes he painted of this view between 1916 and 1923. However, the diagrammatic formation of the white clouds against a dark blue sky clearly shows the influence of the Vorticists with their hard-edged forms and interest in machinery and is reminiscent of fellow ‘Whitechapel Boy’ David Bomberg’s Mud Bath (1914, Tate), which Gertler would have known. Although this patterning is absent from the second landscape, where the background is more naturalistic, Gertler would later repeat this schematic formation in his large Cézannesque composition, Bathers (1917-18, private collection), also centred on Garsington pond. Indeed, one fits over the other like an identical piece of a jigsaw.

Seen sideways on, however, this landscape reveals a faint triangular shape outlined beneath the paint, its ghostly lines just visible against the forms of the farthest tree and the splendid yew on the left of the composition. An X-ray has further revealed that, seen vertically, this is in fact the outline of a carousel, topped by a small flag, and with a circle of rudimentary horses running round its base ̶ a previously unknown and uncatalogued preliminary charcoal and oil sketch for the final Merry-Go-Round canvas.

Gertler had first visited the annual Easter Fair at Hampstead Heath in April 1915, writing to Lytton Strachey of how it conjured up ‘Wonderful ideas for pictures! Girls with brilliant feathers and youths swinging in coloured boats!!! The effect was like a rainbow!!!’ It immediately inspired at least one preliminary composition, Swing Boats (1915, lost, and known only from a small black-and-white reproduction), which established Gertler’s interest in depicting static figures amidst the whirl of rotating machinery. This lost work also contains a standing figure and stylised trees or fencing, which anticipate Gertler’s Portrait of Gilbert Cannan at his Mill (see below), while the whirling formation of clouds in the background also anticipates their later severe diagramatisation in Merry-go-Round.

The final canvas of Merry-Go-Round is known to have taken several months to complete in 1916 and it is clear that in the process of painting it Gertler must have used smaller studies from which the final composition could be worked up. Although there are at least four known figurative charcoal studies of the riders (two of them in the exhibition), carried out between 1915 and 1916, no previous sketch for the carousel itself has been recorded. In the final work the small flag is omitted and the now vertiginously-tipped carousel leans menacingly towards us. Moreover, the horses, which here in their rudimentary forms correlate to Bomberg’s Racehorses (1913, Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art) are fully realized and elaborately composed topped by riders whose mouths are so memorably opened in a never-ending scream. Yet these differences in detail only add to the importance of this astonishing discovery. When fully scrutinized, this small charcoal sketch may yield further secrets: allowing us to learn not only more about Gertler’s materials and his methods, but also the creative process of thought which culminated in the final canvas of Merry-Go-Round. It is further proof that Merry-Go-Round is not an isolated achievement in Gertler’s oeuvre, but part of his significant and ongoing engagement with European modernism.

Yet the panel also yields one final surprise: a further image on the reverse is an oil sketch of the playwright and novelist Gilbert Cannan (1884-1955), now best-known for his novel, Mendel, which was based closely on Gertler’s early life and caused a scandal upon its publication later in 1916. The sketch is clearly an early study for Gertler’s Portrait of Gilbert Cannan at his Mill (1916, Ashmolean), in which the writer’s elegant but emaciated form, flanked by his two enormous dogs, is depicted in front of his converted mill house in the Chilterns. The portrait, begun in 1915, was completed in spring 1916, while Gertler worked simultaneously on Merry-go-Round and its careful structure is also underpinned by a series of complex and repeated patterns.

Collected together in this one small panel we therefore find a microcosm of Gertler’s interests and experiments in what was perhaps the most crucial and radical year of his career.

Piano Nobile: Sarah MacDougall, October 2012