Mark Gertler: Figurative Painting and ‘Women in Love’
On the 23rd of June 1939, British figurative painter Mark Gertler gassed himself in his London studio. His suicide ended the period of the artist’s prolonged depression caused by growing financial difficulties, unfavourable reviews after the exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, and the recent break up with his wife. He had also never fully recovered after the death of his mother as well as the painter Dora Carrington’s suicide in 1932, the two major female figures in his life. As an artist “Gertler himself had no imitators and formed no school. …[I]n his maturity he was a comparatively isolated figure. If he failed… it was not from complacency or settled picture-making’. He was, as Virginia Woolf noted at the time of his suicide, ‘a most resolute serious man: intellectual; fanatical about painting’. This points to a possible explanation for Gertler’s marginal position, his failure consistently to attain the ‘real stuff’ as he had hoped. Theory and effort cramped his instinctive, sensual life on canvas as illness and depression extinguished his personal vitality. In the end, the strict formalism adopted as a cure for nagging anxiety, proved fatally destructive.” (Richard Shone, William Roberts; Mark Gertler. London and Leeds, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 134, No. 1071, June 1992)
Born in December 1891 in London, Gertler was the youngest child of Polish Jewish immigrants. In 1906, he enrolled in art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic, but due to the family’s poverty, he was forced to quit his studies and start working for a stained glass company – a job he disliked very much. After coming third in a national art competition in 1908, and obtaining a scholarship from the Jewish Education Aid Society, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, University College, London. There, he got acquainted with Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Isaac Rosenberg, and Dora Carrington, whom he loved obsessively and pursued relentlessly for many years. Unfortunately, Carrington, deeply in love with the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey, never fully reciprocated his feelings.
Gertler’s unique personality and magnetic charm made him quickly a popular figure among London’s elite. He “impressed everyone with his exuberant vitality, his exotic beauty and his artistic gifts. Aldous Huxley portrays him as Gombauld in Chrome Yellow, ‘a black-haired young corsair of thirty, with flashing teeth and luminous dark eyes’.” Michael Holroyd, on the other hand, described his charismatic character as follows: “Tempestuous and aggressive in his behaviour, he gave the impression of having schooled himself in the rudiments of polite society only through a most supreme effort of the will that might disintegrate at any second. He plunged into every activity which took his fancy with sudden and unrestrained violence, and was an exacting friend, a demanding and jealous lover.” (Jeffrey Meyers, Painting and the Novel)
It comes as no surprise that Gertler became an inspiration to his contemporaries such as the aforementioned Aldous Huxley or D.H. Lawrence, who would use Gertler’s overpowering persona as well as his highly individual art in their writing. For example, Lawrence, mesmerized by Gertler’s powerful painting Merry-Go-Round (1916), “informed Gertler that he had metamorphosed the painting of a whirligig into a gigantic frieze and used it in his latest novel, Women in Love.” (Meyers). Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round was perhaps his biggest masterpiece: “… the colour is almost unbearably harsh and strident. Gertler seems to have been determined to show how much he could unleash. …The holiday-makers are deliberately reduced to the same wooden state of rigidity as their steeds, the clouds above are as aggressively Cézanne as they. Everything is held, as though within some whirling metallic labyrinth, by a system of ellipses and verticals. This compels the artist to insist upon a series of redundant visual rhymes which, with relentless iteration, render the strange, mazed, tipsy reel of the fairground. It is a picture which certainly deserves to be respected; but which is more easily admired than loved.” (Meyers)
Lawrence used Gertler as well as Carrington as models for his characters in Women in Love. Certain traits of Carrington can be identified in Minette, and Loerke is partly based on Gertler. “But the way in which Lawrence transforms his attractive friend into the corrupt and sinister Loerke provides a valuable insight into his creative technique. Merry-Go-Round provoked a highly emotional response from Lawrence, who did not separate the impact of the work itself from his feelings about Gertler as a person and an artist.” (Meyers).
Lawrence’s fascination with Gertler was perhaps dictated by similarities of character and a background they both shared. “Volatile and exciting personalities, their lack of self-control, their tendency to be overbearing and possessive, to dominate and to wound their friends, are partly explained by their early poverty. For both men retained their regional accents and remained working-class outsiders in society, strongly attached to their families, especially their mothers, and always resentful of and uneasy with rich patrons.” (Meyers). Perhaps that is why Gertler and Lawrence were able to remain friends until Lawrence’s death in 1930, and even the episode of Lawrence’s maltreatment of Gertler in Women in Love did not affect their friendship.