This remarkable painting underlines Christopher Wood’s status as one of the very few English artists afforded serious treatment in 1920s Paris. Born in Knowsley (near Liverpool) in 1901, Wood moved to the French capital at the age of 20. There he studied drawing at the Académie Julian and entered the fashionable artistic circles, associating with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau.
When he painted this Self-Portrait, Wood was still attempting to establish a personal style and make his reputation as an artist. These circumstances help to explain the unusually large dimensions of the work (the figure is life-size) and the hieratical pose of the painter, which make this a major statement for self-promotion. Wood presents himself as an artist at the heart of the capital of the avant-garde. He records his appearance and the tabletop still-life to his right meticulously, using them as props to build up an impression of his character and status for the viewer.
The triangular-patterned jumper makes direct reference to Harlequin and, indirectly, to theatre, both popular themes in French art throughout the 1920s. The colour scheme of the jumper is the same as that of the entire painting: the red and brown extending into the buildings, the blue into the sky and roofs, and the black and white providing the details. Wood appears rather hemmed in by the cityscape behind, which has the flatness typical of a stage set. The disconcerting emptiness of the eyes makes the face look like a mask, through which the sky is visible. These characteristics highlight Wood’s interest in the ambiguous nature of theatre and the dramatic arts. Further evidence of this can be found in his determination to secure a commission for the stage design of Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet of 1925 (sketches for which are also at Kettle’s Yard).
When the extension of Kettle’s Yard was built in 1970, Jim Ede, who was very close to Wood during his short life, placed the painting above the works of another friend of his who had died prematurely: T. E. Lawrence.
Provenance: purchased by H.S. Ede from the artist’s estate (?), c.1930.
Painting [CW 1]
Oil on canvas
1295 x 960 mm
About the artist
Wood was born in Liverpool. Through extended visits to Paris between 1921 and 1924 he came into contact with the European avant-garde, meeting Picasso and Jean Cocteau in 1923. In Britain he became close friends with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, painting with them in Cumberland in 1928. That year he also met Alfred Wallis on a visit to St. Ives with Ben Nicholson, and lived near Wallis for several months. He first visited Brittany in 1929, returning in 1930. During his Parisian years Wood was introduced to opium by Cocteau. He became addicted to it and was under the drug's influence when he was killed by a train at Salisbury station.