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Authors: Sebastian Faulks

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She became the biggest love of his life, though her influence crept up on him and had to defeat his frequent insistence that she was more of a friend than a lover. This was never the case, but Wood still liked to think of women as either the Meraud-type or the Winifred-type. It took him a long time to understand that Frosca had over-ridden this distinction and was capable of being his lover as well as his friend. When he finally surrendered to the depth of feeling that she had engendered in him, he admitted it was the strongest he had ever known.

Late in 1928, however, before this transformation was complete, Wood was still haunted by Meraud. ‘I am a little frightened to see her now,’ he told Winifred Nicholson, ‘as I am so fond of Froska [he usually spelled her name with ‘k’] and am happy and so is she, very, and I’m terrified that M has some extraordinary power or attraction for me which is destructive…’

The year of separation was coming to an end and Wood felt humiliated by the fact that Bridget Guinness had plainly outmanoeuvred him. He did still want Meraud, but only in a halfhearted way. He did not think they could be happy together, and in any case he now had Frosca to consider as well. It had all worked out exactly as Mrs Guinness must have planned: he had been her dupe. To concede as much by not going back to Meraud, however, would be tantamount to admitting that their affair had not amounted to much in the first place, and that was not the case. On the contrary, his feeling for Meraud – whatever reservations people, including him, might have about her character – had been frighteningly intense.

As if this were not complicated enough, Wood had not fully broken off with Jeanne Bourgoint. He continued to think wistfully of her and occasionally to give in to temptation. There was then the more substantial figure of Tony Gandarillas, though
here there had been a curious development. Gandarillas had begun an affair with Maria, Duchesse de Gramont, Wood’s very first sitter in Paris. Wood loyally believed they had been in love for years, and felt no jealousy. His problem was that he was not sure how much Gandarillas still needed him. He did not know whether he should continue to live in Gandarillas’s flat out of politeness, in order not to hurt his feelings, when the old atmosphere was changed and the rooms were filled with the presence of Maria. Worse than this was the fact that Wood was secretly sorry for Gandarillas. He thought that his endless partying was,
au fond
, pathetic; he pitied him because he had no purpose to his life. His pity was misplaced because Gandarillas was able to function quite happily without a serious sense of purpose; he was a survivor almost as charmed and tough as Jean Cocteau.

Meanwhile, as Bridget Guinness’s one year neared its end, a crystalline pattern formed about Wood. Tony had backed Meraud but hated Jeanne. Jeanne thought Meraud was despicable. Tony loved Maria. Kit pitied Tony and feared Meraud. Winifred tortured herself to be kind to Frosca. They all loved Kit.

And he was really less interested in any of them than in his painting. The tensions of his emotional life, while complicated, had reached a temporary equilibrium. It was good enough, anyway, for him to be able to paint and to feel himself at a point when his full talent was about to be realised.

In August he took the train to Cornwall and the real work began.

From the moment he had arrived at Alphonse Kahn’s house more than seven years earlier Wood had been certain that if he could find the time alone, in the right circumstances, then he would be capable of producing pictures of the highest quality; that he could be – and he didn’t feel shy of the term – a great painter.

He had no obvious reason to believe this. Picasso and Matisse, for instance, could not only draw much better than he could, they had a sense of composition and an understanding of traditional
and modern forms that was far beyond his. Lesser painters than those two were still more obviously accomplished than Wood.

What had he done anyway? He had shown himself to be deft at copying others, at taking useful tricks and mannerisms from them. He was also good at digesting what he took so that within two or three paintings, the borrowed style became part of his own vocabulary. Cézanne, Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, Braque, Picasso, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Utrillo were among those he had raided: Wood’s paintings of the mid-1920s made the head hurt with the number of associations and references they triggered. For all their high points – ‘La Foire de Neuilly’, the portrait of Constant Lambert, the brilliant early watercolours, the developing single-line drawings á la Picasso, the red ink sketches in Rome, the self-portrait in the bright sweater – they lacked grandeur. They were often impressive, but they remained the work of someone finding his way.

At the beginning of his painting career Wood had had temporarily to divert his ambition to paint great pictures into a determination to improve his technique. Since both long-term ambition and immediate determination were controlled by a common willpower this was not as difficult as it appeared. As his study and practice developed he came to the stage in August 1928 when he believed he had the technical means to do what he wanted. This then was the moment for him to recall exactly what it was that he had planned to do with his work; this was the time to look back inside and see what driving force, temporarily diverted into learning, had made him want to be a painter in the first place.

Wood believed his painting had an autobiographically expressive purpose. This was unfashionable as a premise then as now, and Wood’s painting partner in 1928, Ben Nicholson, particularly disliked the sentimental idea that pictures ‘tell us’ something of the artist. The feelings and ideas Wood had were the product of the mingled emotional forces of his English childhood, youthful illness and the determined, unreciprocated, ignorance of the public world.

It was in painting that England had fought its most dogged battle for insularity. Augustus John was a draughtsman of rare
talent and some of the paintings he produced in the first decade of the century were touchingly beautiful. However, he chose not to accept the challenge laid down by Cézanne, by whose work most of the Modern movement in France was shaped. John turned his gifts instead to society portraits; by the time Wood met him in 1921 his work was already beginning to look meaningless. Sickert had understood both the Impressionists and the Realist painters such as Courbet and Millet, yet found his bluff agonisingly called by Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibition in London in 1910. Though he admired individual paintings, Sickert’s heart was not in it; his response was generous but it was not warm. Even such tepid respect as this was unusual amid the general outrage that greeted the show.

The story is familiar now, but it was significant at the time of Wood’s early formation as an artist. The show, entitled ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, was mounted by Roger Fry in November 1910. The principal exhibitors were Cézanne (21 pictures), Gauguin (36) and Van Gogh (22). There were also eight paintings by Vlaminck, three by Derain, two by Picasso, and three paintings and three sculptures by Matisse. It was England’s first full-frontal view of the new French art and the response was seismic.

Pornography…the work of lunatics… a practical joke…of no interest except to the student of pathology: these were the reactions not of the editorial column of the
Morning Post
but of professional painters and liberal critics. Paul Nash recalled that the exhibition ‘seemed literally to bring about a national upheaval’. His own teacher at the Slade told the students that although he could not prevent them going to the Grafton galleries, he would much rather they stayed away. And these were not the canvases of Rothko or Jackson Pollock, not bricks or found objects, not action paintings, pickled sheep or used sanitary towels: these were figurative paintings – Matisse and Derain in their Fauvist period, Picasso at his most sweetly lyrical, Gauguin and Van Gogh in the popular colours that are today on sale as birthday cards even in the post offices and gift shops of Huyton.

The public of all countries was slow to accept the new painting
of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The French reviled the Impressionists and the Fauvists (literally ‘Wild Beasts’). The response of the United States to the Armory Show in 1913, when it was given its first view of modern European art, was also hysterical: the Illinois senatorial vice commission mounted an inquiry; Matisse was moved to tell an American interviewer: ‘Please tell the American people that I am a devoted husband and father, with a comfortable home and a fine garden, just like any man.’

The difference in England was that it was not just the public that was outraged; it was the artists. They proved it by turning their back on Modernism until it was almost a quarter of a century old. Roger Fry’s second Post-Impressionist exhibition in London two years later was dominated by Matisse and Picasso, but also included some paintings by English artists. This may have been intended to show that the new art had ‘taken’ in England, but the quality of English paintings was inferior. Sickert’s influence declined after the first show, and while Fry’s Omega Workshops provided a focus for the avant-garde, the body of English painters had looked the other way.

The exceptions were singular. Wyndham Lewis showed the influence of Parisian Cubism only four years after Picasso had painted ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, usually cited as the first Cubist picture. Lewis was also abreast of the Italian Futurist movement, and even anticipated it in such paintings as ‘Smiling Woman Ascending a Stair’. Jacob Epstein studied in Paris from 1902 to 1905. He kept pace with Modigliani and Brancusi and arguably outstripped them both in his dramatic ‘Rock Drill’ in 1913. But Epstein was
sui generis;
he was also, like Britain’s foremost Modernist poet, T.S. Eliot, an American.

By the time Christopher Wood emigrated to Paris at the age of nineteen, the direction of painting and sculpture had been changed by the War. Wood’s own ‘War years’ were what gave him the time and the urgent desire to be a painter; but for the artistic generation before him, the experience of the War itself had two devastating effects. In France it drove many of the most experimental artists back on themselves; and in England it cut off
the first attempts, notably those made by Wyndham Lewis, to build bridges across the Channel.

David Bomberg, a student at the Slade, had done what Wood did as early as 1913. He went to Paris and met Derain, Picasso and Modigliani; he picked up some of the rush and clamour of Futurism and showed elements of Cubism in his pictures. But when the war came and he was asked to depict the work of a Canadian tunnelling company, his pictures were rejected. Only when he redid them in a traditional style did they find favour, and he never resumed his pre-War experiments. C. R. W. Nevinson, also strongly Futurist in style before the War, struggled to express the flesh-and-blood aspect of what he saw in such a machine-dominated idiom, and his pictures became old-fashioned, almost journalistic. Even Wyndham Lewis, shaken by the death of his friend Gaudier-Brzeska, had qualms about trying to express the destructive force of military machinery.

The only English painter who appeared to flourish was Paul Nash, who initially enthused, in letters that are shocking to read, over the pictorial aspects of trench warfare. By the time of Passchendaele in 1917, however, he was sick to his soul: ‘Sunrise and sunset are blasphemous,’ he wrote, ‘they are mockeries to man.’ He continued in his own way after the War, out of touch with the mainstream of Modernism as it eventually developed in England in the 1930s when its most important early figures included Wood’s painting partner in 1928, Ben Nicholson.

The French painters enjoyed a remarkable rate of survival, but found their lives and their art changed by the War. The Cubist movement ended on 14 August 1915 when Braque, Gleizes, Léger, Lhote, Villon and Duchamp-Villon were mobilised. Braque was wounded but was able to resume his work after the War. Léger served as a sapper and was so impressed by his fellow engineers and the materials they handled that he forsook the abstract art towards which he had been moving and vowed never again to ‘let go of objects’. Andre Breton worked in a hospital where the use of psychoanalytic techniques laid the basis for the unconscious or automatic elements of Surrealism. Juan Gris and Picasso, the Spaniards, stayed behind, and Picasso mocked the War and its effects. ‘I took Braque and Derain to the station,’ he
wrote, but ‘I never found them again.’ This epigram, spoken for effect, contained some truth about the ending of the first phase of Modernism. After the War, Braque concentrated on consolidation. Derain rejected experiment to become a classical, at times almost wilfully old-fashioned, painter.

By the time Christopher Wood emigrated to Paris in 1921, the city had become a different place. The greatest holocaust ever seen in Europe had been enacted within earshot, and twice within gunshot, of Montmartre. Paris was depicted, largely by Americans, as a rodeo of reckless novelty, of sex and drugs and the frilly underwear of the Folies Bergères, but in fact it was a quieter place than before the War. Picasso, while scornful of his former Modernist confreres, had himself shown an interest in neo-classical forms. Matisse had left Paris for Nice where he was painting in a sensuous, highly coloured style. The new movements of Dada and Surrealism made noisy claims on an artist’s attention, but there was no obligation to sign up.

When Wood arrived he was making a move less bold than Bomberg in 1913. But while he might be said to be in the second wave of English, the first one had been extraordinarily small: even as Paris began to fill with American students and Bohemians, a nineteen-year-old boy from Liverpool still looked like a pioneer in 1921. The other remarkable fact of Wood’s move was that he did not have much personal interest in the artistic movements that were forming in Paris. His own interests included the early work of Picasso, but stopped short of Cubism. He was a figurative painter, and while he took little tricks and calligraphic details from Cubism, he never tried to paint in that style. His alliance of himself to Picasso and what he represented was quite a humble recognition that this was where the talent and the future lay. If he did not copy it, he had to be near it; and this knowledge, amid all Wood’s ignorance and confusion about public affairs and even about art, showed a shrewd instinctive judgement.

BOOK: The Fatal Englishman
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