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  • Nomadic Narratives, Visual Forces: Gwen John’s Letters and Paintings
  • Maria Photiou (bio)
Maria Tamboukou. Nomadic Narratives, Visual Forces: Gwen John’s Letters and Paintings. British Sociological Association Auto/Biography Study Group Studies in Life Writing, Biography, Memoir vo1. 1. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010. 199 pp. ISBN 978-1433108600, $73.95.

Maria Tamboukou’s Nomadic Narratives, Visual Forces explores the visual and textual archives associated with the career and life of the Welsh artist Gwen John (1876–1939). Tamboukou’s research interest in auto/biographical narratives, along with her project of writing a genealogy of women artists, resulted in further research related to John’s letters and paintings. In particular, Tamboukou focuses on John’s letters to the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) and her friend Ursula Tyrwhitt (1878–1966).

Nomadic Narratives, Visual Forces takes us on a journey to explore Gwen John not only as a talented artist, but furthermore, as a passionate women in [End Page 364] love with Rodin. The book is comprised of eight chapters offering a range of documents relating to John’s life and professional career. The book begins with a useful narration of John’s early life and artistic education at the Slade School of Fine Arts, and moves on to an extended narrative analysis of her letters, largely written after John’s 1904 move to Paris.

The first chapter sets out the overall approach to the letters and paintings as “important events,” and introduces John as a nomadic figure. Tamboukou argues that John’s letters and paintings form a mode of communication, which she explores using what she calls a “narrative machine.” In the following three chapters Tamboukou establishes John’s letters and paintings as an “assemblage” of words and visuals. Chapter five details John’s relation to spaces, both public and private, while merging experiences of solitude and communication. Chapter six focuses on discourses of power and desire in unfolding John’s passion for her lover, while chapter seven highlights John’s fascination with cats. Finally, chapter eight emphasizes the importance of the archive for exploring John’s life and work.

In her analysis Tamboukou favors discourses of femininity and artistic creation, aiming to voice John’s letters as nomadic narratives of a woman artist who lived in solitude for most of her life. Tamboukou employs a number of theoretical approaches to explore issues relating to epistolary narrative, while drawing on Adriana Cavarero’s concept of the “narratable self” to examine “who Gwen John” was: both a woman artist encountering the male-dominated art scene, and an artist who had to pose as a model to survive.

Tamboukou’s narrative analysis helps us understand John’s dilemma, caught between “power and desire.” John’s encounter with Rodin overshadowed her long-sought desire to be a renowned artist, but her unconditional love for “her master” resulted in two thousand letters to Rodin that Tamboukou reads through Foucauldian analytics of power and Deleuzo-Guattarian analytics of desire. In working with John’s letters, Tamboukou uses narrative texts as fields of visual forces to explore John’s world and to explore the power of narration and the forces of desire. John’s extensive epistolary archive, Tamboukou concludes, outlines a “self-examination through daily correspondence,” while the practice of love letters reflects a Foucauldian “care of the self.”

The book highlights the connection between John’s letters and self-portraits. Both provide narrative approaches for identifying her nomadic paths to becoming a distinguished artist. Tamboukou’s method for elaborating the various meanings of both visual and textual narratives results in a compelling portrait of the “real” Gwen John. [End Page 365]

A book about an artist can be expected to include a decent quantity of illustrations, and more illustrations would definitely have enhanced this book. Nevertheless, Nomadic Narratives, Visual Forces is a valuable contribution to the history of women artists, and will certainly be welcomed by feminist researchers and art historians.

Maria Photiou

Maria Photiou is a PhD student at Loughborough University School of the Arts (Leicestershire, UK). Her research is centered on women’s art practice and feminist aesthetics, and she is a specialist in the art and politics of Cyprus. She...