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Biography Poem from Painter Poet

05/01/2011

Jo Slade’s biography poem The Artist’s Room traces the artist Gwen John (1876-1939) through Paris at the start of the twentieth-century: ‘I looked for her in Paris…/ walked from place to place, lived the smells, the sounds, / followed a plan I’d drawn.’

A painter-poet, Jo Slade uses her artist’s eye to distill the essence of Gwen John’s biography in a precise poetic structure where the artist’s decade-long relationship with Auguste Rodin is central. ‘Look, she’s holding out a hand to him / something like torture has begun.’

I envy those who, like Jo Slade, can write with a painter’s eye and express themselves with tone and precision in paint or ink: ‘Learning the habit of colour / raw umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna.’

Sean O’Faolain provocatively wrote in an Introduction to Paul Henry‘s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951): ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’  Henry himself had a fascination with writing and finding the exact word to convey his emotions.

Jo Slade’s slim volume portraying Gwen John’s ‘passionate melancholy’ contrasts with the efforts of Mary Taubman – another writer and painter – whose work on the life of Gwen John became a life commitment.  When she did publish a book in 1985 it was not the expected comprehensive biography but a succinct monograph covering the events of Gwen John’s life.

Jo Slade says of Gwen John’s artistic impulse:  ‘She felt changes of colour, subtleties of tone / each of the other everything seeping together / making the world seamless, complete.’

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