When Interior (Mrs Mounter) was painted in 1917, the wider British art scene – save for a very small (mainly London-based) avant-garde – was still reeling from the impact of Roger Fry’s two controversial exhibitions of French Post-Impressionism, held in London in 1910 and 1912, considered by many as an outrage against good taste. Gilman, on the other hand, had already seen what Paris had to offer, having visited in 1910 when he immersed himself in the work of Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse, Signac and, above all, van Gogh. In Interior (Mrs Mounter) the influence of van Gogh is clear: van Gogh the realist, more than the expressionist of his later years, a painter of reality where the underlying emotion is made visible through high-voltage and ‘unreal’ colour. The shaft of light that cuts across the back wall is as heavy and permanent as the wall itself; the figure is weighted equally to the towel drying on the rail, the reflection of the mirror or the solid purple-red dresser. Each element in this modest room is represented at maximum intensity and it is this which makes this painting crackle with psychological presence.
Perhaps even more so than his mentor Walter Richard Sickert, Gilman understood that the truly modern subject was the city, its back rooms and bed-sits and the isolated, dislocated people who inhabited them. Mrs Mounter was Gilman’s landlady, but a middle-class woman suffering the subtlest of degradations, as she slid slowly down the social scale, to the point where she is also the housekeeper of the rooms she rents. The hidden but intense pain of this change in fortune is perhaps lost on us today, but would have been keenly felt at the time. Gilman captures Mrs Mounter lost in thought, a moment of ennui or possibly sheer weariness, her apron fixing her firmly in her place. In many ways, this painting inhabits the same conceptual space as the writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s (much later) masterpiece, The Remains of the Day, a profound meditation on the British class system, the life of domestic servants, time passing and – most importantly – regret and the sense of opportunity lost. Whilst we cannot see Mrs Mounter’s face, in the rest of the painting and in the humming intensity of colour, Gilman eloquently hints at what her expression might be.
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