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Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint

Christopher Wood, Mme Bourgoint (Woman with Fox), 1929

Reuniting a brother and sister can be a wonderful thing – and this weekend Kettle’s Yard will be doing just that, well sort of. You may or may not be familiar with the work ‘Boy with Cat’ (1926)[below]. The painting by Christopher Wood  forms part of the Kettle’s Yard permanent collection and as such the portrait of a young Jean Bourgoint has sat by himself, but for the company of his cat, casting his gaze over our library for many years. On Saturday 6 July our exhibition of works by Christopher Wood opens, and with it has arrived the portrait of Jean’s sister, Mme Bourgoint (Woman with Fox) (1929) [above]. The painting was given to the University of Essex by Kettle’s Yard founder, Jim Ede, as part of his gift of a collection of art to the University in 1964. The return of the work to Kettle’s Yard is particularly poignant set against the story of the two siblings and their relationships with the members of the 1920’s Parisian avant-garde scene in which the likes of Christopher Wood and Jean Cocteau were key figures.

Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint had a notorious and unusual relationship. Jean Cocteau, their friend and Jean Bourgoint’s lover at one time, based the main characters in his novel, Les Enfants Terribles, on the siblings. The novel concerns a brother and sister who isolate themselves as they grow up, forging a strange and close relationship and devising a sinister ‘Game’ against each other. Their strange love/hate relationship and the ‘Game’ rules over their lives, interferes in their other relationships and resulting in both their unfortunate demise.

In real life the beautiful Bourgoint siblings shared an intense bond; they slept in adjacent beds in a room in their Mother’s house for many years and were known to play strange obsessive games with one another. Christopher Wood was close friends with Jean and Jeanne, but formed a special attachment to Jeanne, with whom he had a brief and tempestuous relationship and whom he considered “the ideal female model for me”.

In both paintings, ‘Boy with Cat’ & ‘Mme Bourgoint’ Wood chose to include an animal whose nature is meant to reflect some aspect of the sitter. In the case of Jean’s portrait cats have symbolised fickleness and promiscuity, and Wood must surely have been aware of this. Given Jean’s liberated attitude, the spiky Siamese introduces something of the sexuality of the fey youths of Cocteau’s circle, something which is further hinted at by the coincident blue of the eyes of sitter and pet.

Jeanne Bourgoint committed suicide on Christmas Eve 1929, the same year that Wood painted Mme Bourgoint and which Cocteau’s novel was published. Some thought Jeanne meant to emulate Elizabeth’s character in Cocteau’s novel who ultimately shoots herself to ‘trump’ her brother at suicide. Jean never recovered from his sister’s suicide. Later he became a Trappist Monk and spent time travelling to Cameroon to help treat leprosy.

The exhibition at Kettle’s Yard will be unique opportunity to see these two portraits of siblings reunited alongside their unusual story. Find out more here.

Christopher Wood, 6 July – 1 September 2013
Kettle’s Yard Gallery
Tuesday – Sunday, 11.30am -5pm

Christopher Wood, Boy with Cat, 1926