Eric Gill is one of those artists where you have to divorce your feelings about the art from your feelings about the person – that is if you think the art merits such an effort. I have to admit that before I decided to put a piece up about him I had only ever searched out his images; had only appreciated his art, and the news that he was a paedophile and has what can charitably called some interesting sexual practices came as something of a shock.
I suppose you could kind of say it was analogous to when Larkin was outed as a racist because that presented the reader with a similar problem – how do you feel about the work when faced with what the person truly thought? Does Gunther Grass’s war history within the Nazi party invalidate his contribution to literature? Surely some of how one feels might be influenced by how much the problem behaviours impact upon and inform the work, because anything that glorifies said practices is not going to be something that someone who doesn’t agree with that kind of thinking is going to be able to or want to identify with.
For myself I feel that the work in all these cases has an intrinsic value and I am able to appreciate them in and for themselves. One looks at the depictions of a certain thing – the Virgin Mary or Eve for example, and one reacts to the beauty of the pieces; they are aesthetically pleasing. Gill has a poetry to his imagery and the flow of the lines brings a vitality to what he is depicting. He presents us with a clear, iconic image that seems perfectly choreographed on the page – I have read elsewhere that this has been considered a mark of the sterility of the art, but I think instead it is more a result of Gill’s art existing at that point where art and design cross over – where the process becomes something more mechanical, more exact, but, I think, no less human in its execution.
Look at the images above and I think you will agree they are very pleasurable to the senses; dig deeper and you unfortunately hit a reservoir of biography that it not so pleasant, but for me, at least at the moment, the stain of Gill’s personal life has not blotted out his artistic achievements.