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? …