Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
HAD I been asked on the last 15th of July, the day devoted to St Conxolus, the patron saint of memory, who, of all the now neglected and forgotten artists I have met in my long life, I least expected to be the subject of a resurrection, I doubt if Dora Gordine would have been my answer.
I have not thought of her for 30 years and she had sunk so deep in the waters of oblivion that, to recall her, I needed the prompting of a press release announcing an exhibition of her work at the Ben Uri Gallery this month. To this my first response was "Dora Gordine, good Lord!" and my second "I did not know that she was a Jewess" - this last because the Ben Uri is also known as the London Jewish Museum of Art, the subjects of its work so far invariably Jewish.
I met Dora Gordine in 1976 when working with Nicholas Brown, the last surviving partner of the Leicester Galleries, the reliable and utterly honest firm that had been her London dealer throughout the Thirties and Forties of the 20th century. His father, Oliver Brown, wrote memoirs of these decades, but of Gordine there is not one word, her absence from his pages made more significant by those devoted to Jacob Epstein and his 16 exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries between 1917 and 1960, for at the Ben Uri they share the walls as equals.
Oliver, deaf as a post in his dotage but still lightning-quick with memories, had, perhaps, more important artists of whom to tell his tales of the years between the two world wars - Moore, Kokoschka, Liebermann, Chagall, Soutine among them - than a woman whose work sold easily enough, but was comfortably of its period rather than adventurous and testing.
Gordine's style changed very little from her first show at the Leicester Galleries in 1928 to the last in 1949, or to her final submission to the Royal Academy in 1960. She found early a material, clay, in which she could work comfortably, and scrupulously oversaw its translation by expert craftsmen into patinated bronze at highly reputable foundries. She found a subject, the oriental head and (less frequently) body, that pleased her aesthetically and sensuously. And she found a formula with which she could translate flesh into rounded generalised form, realist and yet slightly distanced from realism. To all these she remained unrelentingly faithful and I fancy that, were she alive now and persuaded to watch Big Brother, she would be quite undone by the surgically ideal face of Pete Burns - perhaps not by the coiled serpents of his Medusa wigs, but certainly by "Zat oval face, zose eyes, zose lips, zat perfect mouse for sex."
Thirty years ago she was of unknown age, but had lived in England since 1935, had had two English husbands, had thought herself English enough to be a Royal Academician and an Official War Artist (though she was accepted as neither), yet still spoke with so heavy a foreign accent that I was uncertain of its origin and suspicious of its genuineness.
She claimed to be Russian by birth, and then from both Estonia and Latvia, pre-revolutionary Russia's Baltic provinces.
Now, almost 15 years after her death in 1991, we know that she was born in Latvia in 1898, settled in Estonia in 1912, and transferred to Berlin in 1920. We also know that she deducted years enough to make us think her a decade or so younger than she was.
This had the advantage of making her seem to have been a youthful prodigy when, after moving to Paris in 1924, she met within a year Aristide Maillol, heir to Rodin as the nation's sculptor, whom she so impressed that he advised her to cut short her art-school training and "work where you can, and how you can, but always work alone".
The problem is that we can perhaps trust nothing that she told us. Did Maillol really take an interest in this piaf of a girl? Did too, as she claimed, those other noted sculptors, Pompon, Despiau and Bourdelle? Did Alfred Flechtheim, the eminent Berlin dealer whose acquaintance she pretended, praise her skills? - with him, at least, there is the supporting evidence of his connections with the Leicester Galleries, connections that may have brought her to the notice of Oliver Brown and his giving her her first English exhibition.
This too has a little mystery attached to it, for her 17 bronzes were shown with paintings by CWE Nevinson, then at the height of critical esteem and a very public figure, and yet, in his self-pitying, spiteful and resentful memoirs, he does not mention the event. Nowhere in accounts of any of these artists and art dealers - or of other artists of the time - can I find evidence that she made any impression of any kind, other than Nevinson's mimicking her accent.
WAS Gordine even Jewish?
The exhibition is supported by a catalogue that will probably be the last substantial document on her life and work, its thinness disguised by the equal bulk of essays on Epstein. The curators have it that "she never stated her religion" but "was widely assumed to be Jewish", and the curator of Gordine's house and remaining works, now the property of Kingston University, writes that she was probably and almost certainly born into a wealthy Jewish family. There is, however, nothing specifically Jewish about her work, as there was in that of Benno Elkan, another expatriate sculptor and one whom the Ben Uri really should re-examine.
Her visual interests lay specifically in the peoples of the Far East, whose smooth faces and bodies comfortably conformed to her theory that sculpture must comprise a series of related convex forms, never concave.
This conviction served her well in her oriental heads, Chinese, Malay, Mongol, Javanese, but the years she spent in Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Johore, Thailand and Malaya, 1930-35, confirmed an interest in style fully formed long before, in Paris as early as 1926, based there on the then current vogue for the exoticisms of Polynesia, Africa and the American Black; it must be argued that hers were journeys of style in search of content. She had a clear eye for the beauty and diversity of skulls, but tended to see and portray them almost as abstract forms, deprived of gender and sexuality.
She herself had a highly stylised face, not un-oriental in its breadth and contours, heavily lidded eyes, her brows arched wide, licked curls before her ears; it could be supposed that in a narcissistic sense her face was as much an exotic sculptured mask as any of her sculptured heads.
The theory of constant convexity served Gordine less well with bodies. Her Javanese Dancer of 1927, almost life-size, perhaps Gordine's actual height (she was very short), is a grotesque ill-favoured thing, thick limbed yet boneless, disproportionate. Though she was tiny in old age, early photographs suggest a much more substantial body, so broad of beam and thick of ankle that I wonder if Gordine herself was the model for this figure.
THE fluidity and grace of a real dancer are weighed down with the ugly bulk of bronz e that is not improved by a heavily worked surface which has been hatched, tooled, scratched and scarred to lend interest to its convex vastnesses, not helped by the drab, unreflecting patina. Early critics praised her for the patinas that her bronze-casters applied, but to me they are dark, dull and unflattering, and when coloured, too often high in pitch, making otherwise unremarkable sculptures ugly and crudely obvious to attract men of little taste. The worst of both types of patina are combined in the androgynous Black Orchid, matt black but with mouth, eyes, brows and ears smudged with gold. Gordine was at her best with male portrait heads on which she worked from life (I cannot recall a female head), her style surrendering to her skill in establishing a likeness, but none of these is in the exhibition - a pity, for the heads of Kenneth Clark and John Pope-Hennessy, both extraordinary connoisseurs, might have lent a little strength to this attempted resurrection of her reputation, though neither mentions her in his autobiography.
Early in her time Gordine was extravagantly praised by English art critics, immediately so in 1928. Then, to Gerald Reitlinger in Drawing and Design, she was a very young sculptress from whom "a great deal may be expected"; to RR Tatlock of The Daily Telegraph she had great gifts in sensitivity, plastic beauty and portraiture; and to RH Wilenski in the Evening Standard she was a "Girl Sculptor Genius", though "no woman could ever do the sculptures of Epstein". I am amused to find the words of art critics, when alive and working so despised and disdained by art historians and art curators, taken so seriously when they are dead, but in Gordine's case, with no comments from her respected contemporaries to quote, the curators of this exhibition must make do with what they can and, indeed, use the remark of my predecessor on this paper 78 years ago as a justification for pairing her with Epstein. She is diminished by it.
Wilenski was unquestionably right.
Epstein, carver of stone, modeller in clay, master draughtsman and thinker of daring and astonishing ideas, fails to excite me only when hacking out a portrait head or titillating his libido with yet another sagging bust. In this exhibition there is enough of his work to trounce Gordine, but too little to establish his greatness for those who do not already know it. To the cynic, his use here is as the familiar hefty peg on which to hang, by all the devices of favourable comparison and undiluted praise, Gordine's tiny wisp of reputation. It simply doesn't work.
. Embracing the Exotic: Jacob Epstein and Dora Gordine at the Ben Uri Gallery, 108a Boundary Road, NW8 (020 7604 3991), until 19 March.
Mon-Thurs 10am-5.30pm, Fri 10am-3pm, Sun noon-6pm. Admission [pounds sterling]5.…