49. Augustus John

Tenby 1879 – 1961 Fordingbridge

Tête farouche (“Fierce Head”), 1906

An extraordinarily gifted draughtsman, Augustus John attended the Slade School from 1894 to 1898, before undertaking a career as a portraitist at Liverpool and then in London. Whether portraying the members of the society of his day (William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Marquise Casati, etc.) or catching figures of gypsies and outsiders in etching or pencil, John strived to render his subjects in their deepest human nature. In 1920 Campbell Dodgson had already observed the kinship between the early works of Augustus John and those of Rembrandt.1 This is even more striking if we examine the series of etched self-portraits that the young artist made around 1906.2 This period of production corresponds to the year when he showed his prints at the Chenil Gallery for the first time.3

Our self-portrait, which the artist titled Tête farouche, completes this series; it is also the largest one. The attitude and expression of the face, seen front view, are based on two earlier compositions,4 in which John scrutinised his features and his gaze with penetrating acuity. They do not, however, achieve the dramatic intensity that the artist gave to the second state of this self-portrait, and which appears, a half-century later, to echo the self-portrait The Desperate Man by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).5 With short, tense accents John etched the relief of his agonised face – all knitted brows and hollow cheeks. His irises are rendered by two circles of opaque black, while his dishevelled hair and beard are described in a dense network of unruly commas and curves. The rest of the torso is only summarily suggested. But the effect is above all owed to the partial wiping of the ink on the plate, which produces an ethereal grey tone around the face and a dark halo on the edges. As such, the artist’s face appears to loom out at us from the darkness, unless it was about to be swallowed by the surrounding gloom. Twenty-five impressions were made of this plate, each one experimenting with a different wiping effect. No preparatory drawing for these self-portraits is known, possibly confirming that John worked directly on the plate, the needle used to etch allowing a spontaneous gesture as close to drawing as possible. The artist’s interest in the freest graphic techniques is also displayed in the self-portraits he made in old age, which preserve the face’s intense presence.6

An unusual and flamboyant personality, Augustus John chose the gypsies’ lifestyle from an early age, and is now considered one of the greatest creators of his generation. He became a member of the Royal Academy in 1928 and in 1954, during his lifetime, was given a retrospective in this same institution. MNG

1Campbell Dodgson, A Catalogue of Etchings by Augustus John. 1901-1914, London 1920, p. vi.

2Ibid., nos. 2-10.

3Ibid., p. vii.

4Ibid., nos. 7 and 9.

5Private collection (oil on canvas; 54 × 45 cm); see Laurence des Cars (ed.), Gustave Courbet, exh. cat., Paris (Galeries nationales du Grand Palais), New York (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Montpellier (Musée Fabre) 2007-2008, cat. no. 6.

6Notably two self-portraits (lithographic pencil, on a zinc plate; 330 × 241 mm and 260 × 222 mm); sale, London (Christie’s), 12 June 1987, no. 290, repr.