Mark Gertler was born in London in 1891 into a Jewish-Polish immigrant family living in the east end of London. In 1908, after receiving funding from the Jewish Education Aid Society, Gertler enrolled at the Slade School of Art, and studied under the infamous Professor of Drawing, Henry Tonks. His contemporaries during his four years at the Slade included the so-called 'Crisis of Brilliance' group: Paul Nash, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, and Dora Carrington, whom Gertler loved unrequitedly throughout his life. Whilst at the Slade, Gertler gained a reputation as a particularly talented draughtsman, winning several painting prizes, a two-year Slade scholarship in 1909 and a British Institute Scholarship in 1911.
Gertler first exhibited at the Friday Club in 1911, and was elected to the London Group in 1915. His first solo show was with the Goupil Gallery in 1921, with whom he had several solo and group exhibitions throughout his career. Gertler was a conscientious objector during WWI, painting the seminal 'Merry-Go-Round', 1916; Tate Gallery, to reflect his vision of the death and destruction wreaked on the European world.
Extraordinarily talented, Gertler remains amongst the most significant and internationally renowned British artists of the twentieth-century. Tormented, depressed, constantly in love, arguing with lovers, friends and collectors alike, Gertler was variously patronised by Lady Ottoline Morrell, art collector Edward Marsh, and poet Gilbert Cannan, adored by D.H. Lawrence and detested by Virginia Woolf. Major posthumous exhibitions were held at the Whitechapel, 1949; the Ashmolean Museum, 1971; the Camden Arts Centre, 1992; Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art, 2002; and Piano Nobile, 2012. His work is held in major international collections including Tate Gallery; the National Portrait Gallery, London; and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
‘Fishes’, 1937 was painted two years before Mark Gertler’s suicide. Throughout his career, Gertler painted still lifes of flowers, fruits, and musical instruments, both as independent subjects and as entities within a larger composition such as ‘Supper (Natalie Denny)’, 1928; The National Portrait Gallery. In ‘Fishes’, Gertler depicts two stuffed fish displayed in a glass box. In turn, the box is balanced on a chair with various palettes, frames, and paintings stacked behind. Gertler painted a handful of versions of this idiosyncratic still life subject from the mid-1930s, alongside some pastel studies: a 1937 pastel corresponding to ‘Fishes’ was included in Gertler’s memorial exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1941 and a 1936 oil of the glass box covered with drapery was bequeathed by the Thomas Balston collection to Leeds Art Gallery in 1968.
Towards the end of the 1930s, Gertler was treating the traditional still-life genre with a boldly modernist aesthetic. Writing in the catalogue for the 1982 Ben Urin exhibition of Mark Gertler’s early and late works, Richard Shone wrote, “Towards the end of his life, Gertler was even more invigorated by the new directions he foresaw. Why not reduce subject matter to an interplay of lines and colours, refusing any crustaceous accumulation of symbol and sentiment?” Within the glass box, Gertler uses pure, unmodulated purple, blue, yellow, green, and rusty orange for the bodies of the fish. Extraneous detail, such as the scales of the fish, are removed, replaced by Gertler’s characteristic chalky texture, achieved through swathes of one colour applied with a palette knife. The restriction of colour to a handful of pure tones also serves to flatten, even abstract, the subject matter: this is particularly evident in the near abstract pastel study for ‘Fishes’. Perspective is near non-existent rendering the glass box almost entirely flattened, and the progression of stacked items behind visually complex.
In his use of colour as a vehicle of expressivity and a tool of abstraction, the influence of European artists is evident, particularly Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). In Gertler’s flattened forms, application of unbroken, undiluted colour, the legacy of Kirchner’s Die Brücke German Expressionism is palpable. Likewise, Kokoschka’s expressionistic scenes of Prague, rendered through dynamic handling of paint so that touches of colour subsume details of content, seems a clear point of reference. With renewed passion, daring, and bravado, Gertler’s outlook was decidedly European and modernist, although the critical and commercial reaction did not take kindly to this development. Colour became the fundamental tenet of Gertler’s late work – ‘Fishes’ is depicted with extraordinarily vibrant colours and a correspondingly bold vision.
We are grateful to Sarah MacDougall for her assistance in cataloguing this work.
Lefevre 1939 (5 as ‘Fish’ or 11 as ‘Stuffed Fish’);
Ben Uri, ‘Mark Gertler: A New Perspective', 2002 (43), illus. p. 28, catalogue p. 31.
J. Woodeson, Mark Gertler (Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1972), p. 390;
S. MacDougall, Mark Gertler: A New Perspective (ex. cat. Ben Uri, 2002), p. 22 ‘Gertler ended, as he began, with the Still Life, demonstrating a final clarification of colour and design, with compositions centred on familiar props – here a pair of stuffed fish and a Spanish fan. These paintings signal Gertler’s interest in the late cubism of Picasso and synthetic cubism of Juan Gris, and his late work employs a semi-cubist structure informed by these movements to balance complex combinations of curved and geometrical forms against the sheer ebullience of an ever-more brilliant palette. Sometimes, Gertler breaks all the rules of colour, placing blue against orange, or orange against pink, yet ultimately reconciling the whole through the use of an internal frame or the careful positioning of a black line (in a manner which invites comparison with the work of Georges Rouault).’
Fine Art Society, 1998
Private Collection, UK