This is one of a pair of powerful self-portraits, both executed in 1920, which gained praise from the critic of The Architect when exhibited at Gertler’s first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, London, in February 1921, ‘Gertler is a figure artist, and must be judged by his figure work,[…]. I should put first the two self-portraits, [including] one in the studio before the canvas’. This was the start of Gertler’s most successful decade, with the first of five solo shows at the Goupil, where he also became a regular at the prestigious salons, as well as leading member of the London Group, specialising in finely-executed, highly-finished oils, particularly female nudes and portraits, often set against elaborate interiors. Yet, taken together, these two stark self-portraits contrast with the richly coloured works that follow and indicate a more sombre mood as Gertler entered the new decade. They also hint at the impending collapse of his health only two months later: ‘Altogether I feel about a hundred years old,’ he wrote to Carrington, shortly before the completion of this portrait. By April, he was already suffering from a weak chest and lassitude and when, in the autumn, he also began to spit blood, pulmonary tuberculosis was finally diagnosed, confining him to Banchory Sanatorium in Scotland until the following May, where he missed the opening of his first solo exhibition. Thereafter, the fear and threat of this disease continued to shadow Gertler for the rest of his life.
Perhaps to emphasise the introspective nature of this new self-portrait, Gertler chose a subdued palette, in contrast to the primary colours of his pre-war work and the Cézannesque greens of his recent Garsington landscapes. In a related head-and-shoulders self-portrait executed in May (in which he wears the same wide-collared white shirt), he used a palette knife (possibly for the first time) to depict himself with a strikingly pale complexion and tightly-compressed mouth, apparently stifling violent emotions. Two months on, his focus has widened and he employs an unusual landscape format to include his upright figure standing at the easel: his left hand (as reflected in the mirror) poised at the canvas, a set of brushes in his right. In a recent series of sporting figures including boxers, bathers and ballet dancers, and his only sculpture, The Acrobats (1917, Tate Liverpool), Gertler had posed his subjects in athletic attitudes, emphasising their strong limbs and torsos, in contrast to which his own figure appears unnaturally pale and painfully thin, yet he stands resolutely upright and centre-stage, also engaged in his own heroic struggle. Gertler described the work to Carrington as ‘one of myself with interior’ and first exhibited it under the title ‘The Studio’, setting it within the interior of his beloved Penn Studio in Rudall Crescent, Hampstead, where he moved in 1914 and remained until it was sold in 1932, when he described himself as ‘very very wretched’ at having to leave it after the owner sold up. Here the studio furniture – a folding screen and bookcase behind him, the frame of what appears to be a large mirror towers in front of his easel to the right – also exerts a strong presence, framing his figure within a set of strong verticals that no doubt appealed to his preference for a strong structure. Despite his somewhat ghostly appearance, Gertler is strongly identified with the studio that surrounds him and with the tools of his profession, perhaps suggesting that the artist’s work will outlive the corporeal but ephemeral body depicted.
We are very grateful to Sarah MacDougall for preparing this catalogue entry and also to Luke Gertler for his assistance with researching this work.