Christopher Wood: Sophisticated primitive


Christopher Wood (1901-1930) was an important and influential figure in the British art world during the 1920s.  Deborah Caulfield examines his art and his life as presented in a major exhibition at at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, on show until 2 October 2016.

Self-portrait by Christopher Wood with paintbrush in hand and a small table with a set of oil paints

Christopher Wood, Self-portrait, 1927, Kettle’s Yard.

This comprehensive and superbly curated exhibition tracks Christopher Wood’s artistic development and creative journey during the ten years from 1920 until his tragic death at the age of 29.

The 80+ works include paintings, opera and ballet set designs, and drawings.

The exhibition also examines Wood’s personal struggle with conflicting influences, namely, the reserved gentility of his English heritage and the hedonistic excesses of the Parisian avant-garde.

Described by James Russell as ‘charismatic, flawed and something of a genius’, Wood told his mother he wanted to be ‘the greatest painter that ever lived’. Thus he would he repay the debt he felt he owed her for nursing him back to health from childhood polio and septicaemia.

Wood drove himself hard and his output was vast. But far be it from me to suggest it was his determination to succeed at all costs that propelled him to an early death. More likely it was the drugs.

So when Christopher (Kit) Wood jumped in front of the Atlantic Coast Express as it pulled into Salisbury station one Thursday afternoon in the summer of 1930, a devoted mother lost her precious boy, girlfriends and boyfriends lost their beautiful lover, and the community of high-flying artists and writers, of which Wood was an important part, lost one of its dearest own.

Yet there is little sense of tragedy here. Rather, this exhibition is a joyous celebration and for me an unexpected revelation.

Wood’s suicide is barely mentioned. His opium addiction is not dwelt on, except to say that, encouraged by his relationship with Jean Cocteau, it almost certainly fed into the somewhat mysterious and visionary quality of his later paintings, of which one example is Yellow Man, 1930. Here Wood appears to be finding his voice, albeit a troubled one speaking from a darker and more disturbed place than in his earlier works.

painting of a man dressed in yellow walking down a starkly-lit street

Christopher Wood, The Yellow Man, 1930, private collection.

Incredibly earnest and eager to learn from others, Wood was doubtless the ideal mentee for the artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson, under whose capable wings he seems to have flourished.

Indeed, it was while out walking with Ben Nicholson that Wood stumbled upon the untrained Cornish artist Alfred Wallis. This chance encounter was to have a profound impact on the work of both.

They were captivated by the freshness and untutored naiveté that Wallis possessed and which they were seeking.

However, Wood’s understanding of naïve art was also influenced by modernists painters whose work he encountered soon after arriving in France, for example Pablo Picasso (who he met personally), Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh, all of whom drew inspiration from Non-Western art and so-called ‘primitive’ cultures.

The final rooms of the exhibition feature paintings from Wood’s last two series made during trips to Corniuaille in Brittany in the summers of 1929 and 1930.

Encouraged by the support and friendship of the gallerist Lucy Wertheim, Wood explored with great intensity the Celtic links between Cornwall and Brittany. The paintings from this period are generally considered his greatest achievement, the realisation and fulfilment of the simple, intuitive vision for which he strived throughout his career.

Ship Inn, Mousehole, 1930 encapsulates both the exhibition’s title and Wood’s mature style. Here he arrives at what he set out to achieve.

It is flat and deep (as one of my art school tutors once described Cézanne’s paintings). The composition and structure are strong, as is the sense of space. It has perspective – nearness and distance – and is busy yet uncluttered. The skyline is soft yet convincingly drawn. One can almost breathe the air.

Lively painting of a group of sailors dancing on a village street

Christopher Wood, Dancing Sailors, 1930, Leicester.

A key factor in my enjoyment of this exhibition was the provision of explanatory texts, letters and newspaper articles, including large-print transcriptions. By giving context to the work these, together with benches and/or seats in every room, very much enhanced my experience.

A further access feature is in being allowed to take a break (e.g. for a cup of their excellent coffee) and return to the exhibition. Such attention to access details removes some of the arduousness of visiting galleries.

Lastly, for newcomers (like me) to Wood’s work there is an excellent set of videos on The Pallant Gallery website, an opportunity to beef up one’s knowledge before going to the exhibition.

Do go if you can. Take your time, savour the delights. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.

Not all of Wood’s best works are in this exhibition. 96 works can be viewed here:

Exhibition Notes are also available to download from the Pallant House Gallery website:

There is also a very detailed and excellent chapter on Wood on the Good Reads website.