Gluck: Fashioning Herself

Gluck: Fashioning Herself

A closer look at the pioneering avant-garde artist's life, work and loves
A closer look at the pioneering avant-garde artist's life, work and loves

G luck’s remarkable art reflected an equally remarkable life: one filled with rebellion, heartbreak and enduring independence. Born Hannah Gluckstein, in 1895, to the family who owned J. Lyons & Co., Gluck left the reigns of her conservative heritage behind and took the creation of her legacy as a true ‘avant-garde’ artist into her own hands. Through art, Gluck was able to experiment with new identities and embark on a before-untrodden trajectory of life.

Gluck, ‘no prefix, suffix or quotes’, first rejected the status quo and overturned conventional gender conformity during her time at St John’s Wood School of Art from 1913 to 1916. Here, she adopted an androgynous style of dress, smoked a pipe, and cropped her hair. Even around the time of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, Gluck’s individualism shocked her contemporary audience, and, yet, she refused to compromise. She famously resigned from an art society that referred to her as ‘Miss Gluck’ on its letterhead.

Detail from Howard Coster, Gluck, c.1932

Due to the outbreak of World War I, Gluck was forced to relocate from London to Lamorna, Cornwall. This move induced unexpected possibilities and inspirations for Gluck, changing both the course of her artistic career and personal life. Indeed, running away from the conventions of London life with her lover E.M. Craig was the first of many rebellious acts. In Cornwall, the pair embraced a bohemian lifestyle and settled down in an emerging artistic community. Gluck’s sense of identity continued to evolve.

The Gluck room at The Fine Art Society, 1932, FAS Picture Library

Moving back to London in 1920, Gluck changed her name and continued to perfect her signature style. Exemplified in the 1921 Self-Portrait, offered in the Modern & Post-War British Art sale on 19 November, where the inscription ‘Gluck’ acts as both a title and a signature. Gluck’s artistic prominence further grew with her flower paintings, which were partly inspired by her romance with Constance Spry, a famous society florist. In keeping with her fervent independence, Gluck only participated in solo exhibitions, her first being with The Fine Art Society in 1937.

Self-Portrait epitomises Gluck’s spirit and artistic ambition at this point in her career. She presents herself adorned in Eastern dress, balancing an artist’s palette over her left shoulder and surrounded by calligraphic writing. Gluck, recognisable by her signature profile pose, situated herself at the centre of different cultures and influences – something extremely forward-thinking in 1920s Britain. She is pensive and vulnerable, but also untouchable. The exquisitely fine lines of pen, pencil and ink give this piece an ethereal presence.

Gluck’s admirable sense of self-belief within her rather constrictive Edwardian surroundings is also apparent in her later Self-Portrait, from 1942. This work marked the end of her secretive and intoxicating relationship with Nesta Obermer, a well-known socialite trapped in a marriage to a wealthy elderly husband. Painted together during a performance of Don Giovanni, Gluck’s biographer Diana Souhami remarked that the couple “sat in the third row”, where Gluck felt that “the intensity of the music fused them into one person and matched their love”.

However, this passionate, and somewhat tormented, romance ended abruptly when Nesta broke things off in 1944. Gluck was so devastated that she destroyed all evidence of their life together. Nevertheless, Gluck’s relationship with Nesta had an ongoing impact on her chosen artistic subjects and style, changing her own history. She often celebrated their alliance in her art, which she saw as an eternal marriage and a true merging of souls. However, this heartbreak also made her more assured of her own character and life ambitions. It fortified her resilience and fearless pushing of boundaries in all aspects of life.

Gluck pictured at the Art Society in front of one of her famed flower paintings

Through the recollection of Gluck’s life and art, we also feel the importance of this icon for the LGBTQ+ community today. One of her powerful self-portraits was the banner image for the Tate’s recent exhibition, Queer British Art 1861-1967. In the present lot, Gluck confronts the questioning gaze, and therefore continues to assert her position in the history of 20th century art.

Gluck exhibited again at The Fine Art Society again in 1972, after demanding that "as my last show was in 1937… I think it is time that we considered another". As headstrong and determined as ever, the then 78-year-old suffered a heart attack during the set-up, but made sure with a lawyer that the show would go on. Fifty-two paintings were shown, representing the span of her long and dynamic career, while Gluck sat amongst her paintings and shared stories of her life.

Gluck’s life shows us how she looked both to, and beyond, her contemporary environments to find artistic inspiration. Powerful and self-assured, this self-portrait demonstrates her bold inquisitiveness into the nature of ‘identity’, which could not be more relevant in the political arena of today.

Modern British & Irish Art

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