What's on in London: Gwen John times two, with lots of unseen work

Fontana moves from Hayward exhibition to commercial gallery, Basquiat’s drawings come to the City and the centenary of the charming Ardizzone is celebrated


o Anthony d’Offay have a rare treat this month: an exhibition of some sixty paintings, watercolours and drawings by Gwen John from the collection of her favourite nephew, Edwin, who inherited her estate on her death in 1939. Many of these works have never been seen before and they span her whole career. We can see studies for some of her early, carefully executed, genre scenes now in major public collections. By the 1910s, Gwen John had begun repeating a composition with very little variant, the series of convalescent models which date from this time.

The exhibition shows the development of her work from the carefully executed Slade drawings, through a more fluid manner in the hundreds of watercolours of figures in the church of Meudon from the 1910s and 1920s, to her last watercolours and gouaches—completely French, opaque, brightly coloured abstract images. The catalogue, written by Edwin John’s daughter Sara, gives us a compelling account of Gwen John’s family life. She was extremely close to her nephew and his daughter recounts her childhood memories of her house in Meudon, close to Rodin’s studio. It is thanks to the care Edwin John took of Gwen’s estate that her reputation has flourished and this exhibition has been made possible. A loan exhibition of her works is also currently showing at the Olympia Fair.

o 11 Duke Street mount a major selling exhibition of the work of Lucio Fontana. Following his recent centenary show at the Hayward, appreciation in Britain of Fontana’s work has probably never been higher. This exhibition includes some of his most important pieces, with some from the Hayward, such as one of the “Fine di Dio” series of 1963, the culmination of his punctured canvases that explored the relationship between science and God.

o Chinese Contemporary bring the work of two young Chinese artists to London. Mao Yan is a talented portraitist who works in a subtle palette of blues and greys. These works are not, however, portraits in the sense their titles, “Mr S” or “Mr X” imply, but are more psychological impressions of universal states. An extremely talented painter, his surfaces are minutely worked with tiny brushstrokes and subtle glazes. Liu Ye’s work shows a very different side of Chinese art, mirroring the tensions between the new intellectual freedom and State control. Mannequin- or puppet-like figures are dressed up in military uniforms and paraded on a stage, a choir of school girls is arranged with military precision and a Madonna clutches a screaming baby surrounded by lurid grinning cherubs.

o Marlborough have mounted a major survey of Picasso’s oeuvre as a printmaker with some sixty works taking over the whole gallery. Prices range from a few thousand for the more whimsical etchings to £45,000 for the major lithographs such as “Françoise sur fond gris” of 1946.

o With all the fuss over the millennium, we could be forgiven for forgetting this is also the centenary of the birth of the much loved children’s illustrator Edward Ardizzone. Best known for his “Little Tim” books, all of which are to be re-released this year, Wolsey Fine Arts are celebrating with an Ardizzone exhibition. The gallery has assembled a broad cross section of works, many of which has come from the family collection. It includes book illustrations, among them his work on Great expectations and the ingenious cover he designed for one of his own books, Nicholas and the fast moving diesel.

o Although a major figure in the New York art scene of the 1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat never showed in London during his life time and the exhibition of his drawings at Stephen Lacey will be only the second time his work has been shown in this country on any significant scale. The show brings together thirty works on paper, some of which will be for sale and others from private collections.

Basquiat’s early death at twenty-seven, his hedonistic life-style and political sensibility have turned him into an focus of interest that is taken to personify disaffected black America. Drawing is the essential element of his art, and often his paintings are little more than scaled-up drawings.

o “Eight plus one” is a group of eight female and one male sculptors who came together in 1996 in order to promote their work. The second of their exhibitions opens at The Gallery in Cork Street. The subject is “Timepieces: a celebration of time”, there are no prizes for what the show refers to. The work is extraordinarily disparate, from easy-on-the-eye appealing pieces, such as Jill Berelowitz’s wonderfully sensual carved wood torso, where the annual rings of trees remind us of the passing years, to the more gritty work of Alec Ryman and Nicole Leader. Their interactive “Time capsule” shows rearranged casts of body parts in a sinister reference to genetic experimentation.

o Beaux Arts show dazzling new works by David Leapman, the perfect antidote to a grey February day. These works literally zing with colour combinations of acid pinks, lime greens, oranges and scarlets that ought to be sickeningly tasteless, but are, in fact, curiously compelling. You want to work out what they are all about. Are these strange atomic structures moving with all the colours of the kaleidoscope? or identifiable motifs—a house, a box disgorging its contents? or even weird inventions of an acid-induced trip, suggested by titles like “The estimator” or “The enigma provider”?

o Watercolourist Kurt Jackson returns to David Messum with his glowing, light-filled landscapes, many this time of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles. He follows in the long tradition of plein-air painters, completely immersed in his surroundings. The works are always painted in situ, with tremendous power and energy, and have the character of a traveller’s note book with text scrawled across the surface recording the place, the type of day and the artist’s impressions. Jackson was brought up in Northern Nigeria and has hitchhiked to the Arctic and the length of Africa. He has lived among many tribal peoples. Ten works from the exhibition have been auctioned for Survival International to raise £20,000-25,000 for the charity which supports the cause of threatened tribal people worldwide.

o Another watercolourist cum traveller, Lucy Willis, shows at the Curwen Gallery. The work in the show is inspired by travels in India, Africa and Greece. Trained at the Ruskin School in Oxford, Lucy Willis’s images capture the architecture and people of the places visited in delicate washes and luminous tints.

o David Tindle’s first show since moving to Italy two years ago opens at the Redfern Gallery. He has become increasingly interested in Italy’s antique past and the Renaissance, especially in Ghirlandaio, and his work has become more sublime and resolved. The paintings are mainly carefully arranged still-lifes and have the same dreamy quality, but have lost some of their disturbing edge.

o Since moving from Derbyshire to St Ives, landscape artist Michael Porter has diverted his subject matter from cliffs and woods to the Gwavas Lake shore line. As a result, his palette has become much bluer and the work more fluid as the watery element takes over. His new work is on show at Purdy Hicks. Porter’s work is almost abstract as he dissects the composition of the world around him it reveals the elemental nature of stone or water by analysing its surface and structure in acute detail.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Gwen John times two, with lots of unseen work'