Mark Gertler 1891-1939


Private Collection, UK


Mark Gertler Works 1912-28 - 'A tremendous Show of Vitality', Piano Nobile, London, 12 October - 16th November 2012

The painted version of The Violinist is a head-and-shoulders portrait of a girl with thick, dark hair, cropped and parted in the centre with a light fringe; as in the drawing, her heavilylidded eyes are downward-looking and her full lips firmly modelled. Her loose, open-necked blouse is similar to that worn by Gertler’s sister Sophie in ‘bohemian’ guise, Portrait of a Girl (1912, Tate) and was probably one of Gertler’s own. This was Gertler’s second portrait oil of the music student. The first, also entitled The Violinist (lost) was exhibited and sold at the Chenil Galleries, Chelsea, in December 1912. P. G. Konody, art critic at The Observer, commented that it also contained a number of ‘figures from some Egyptian wall paintings, that seem to grow out of the sitter’s shoulders, rather than take their intended place in the background’; their loss was mourned by the critic of the Star, who felt that the second version was ‘much flatter and emptier than the first’ as a result. The change was probably made however because in the later composition Gertler wished to focus attention entirely on the sitter’s face. From now on his portrait heads would fill the picture surface, sometimes only just contained by the edges of the canvas (and in the following year they would even break free of this confinement). Konody had perceptively noted how Gertler was bringing together two ‘archaic sources’ in his portraiture, detecting a correlation with ‘the Graeco-Roman portraits from mummy cases found at the Fayum in Egypt,’ available to view in the British Museum, ‘Not only the general treatment, but the very type of his “Violinist”, thick-lipped, with dense, woolly black hair, recalls these encaustic paintings’,11 he observed.12 Gertler’s enthusiasm for the Egyptian room at the British Museum had been kindled by a visit there with Jacob Epstein in the summer of 1912:

Epstein took me to the British Museum and there revealed to me such
wonders in works of art that my inspiration knew no bounds and I came to
the conclusion that Egyptian art is by far, by far, by far, the greatest of all art.
[ . . . ] We moderns are but ants in comparison. But ants! As I think of this great
art my ambition doubles and redoubles! [ . . . ] if I am given many years in this
world, I think! I think! I shall do great things!

Although the Egyptian influence could still be detected in Gertler’s work as late as 1914, in 1912 that of the early Italian Renaissance painters was stronger still, as ‘‘I think of the National Gallery with all its joys[:] Michelangelo!!!! Botticelli !!! [Piero della] Francesca !!! [ . . . ]’, he wrote to fellow artist Dora Carrington in July, ‘my mouth opens itself and smiles what a joyous smile!’. The origins of this style, known among its followers as Neo-Primitivism, can be traced back to a trip to Paris in Easter 1910, and the mutual enthusiasm of Gertler and his ‘quintet’ of Slade friends for the ‘Primitive’ room at the Louvre. This quintet initially comprised Gertler, Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and David Sassoon, but the last-named, a quiet, likeable student, was ultimately edged out by the more forceful presence of John Currie. Famously, it was Currie who, in 1912, captured the group for posterity, transforming them into ‘Some Later Primitives’, using the tempera technique of their quattrocentro masters. ‘Neo-Primitive’, however, was an imprecise label. The term ‘primitive’ had been commonly used since the mid-19th century to describe pre-Renaissance European masters, such as Cimabue and Giotto in Italy, and the early Netherlandish painters. By the end of the 19th century, however, the label was more generally applied to the art associated with those cultures believed to be less ‘advanced’ than the European. Post-Impressionism contributed to this myth with Gauguin’s ‘primitive’ pictures of Tahiti, and later, the influence of African carvings in the work of Picasso and Braque and sculptors including Epstein. In less than a year, infused with the spirit of Post-Impressionism, Gertler would also be re-applying the word ‘primitive’ in this later context to his own work.