Flesh and Spirit at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

At the 1929 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Glyn Philpot showed his portrait Lady Lloyd of Dolobranplus three previously unseen depictions of a Jamaican male model: two paintings, The Triple Epiphany and Balthazarand bronze sculpture Jamaican man walking. In the 1920s, the RA was not known for the diversity of its representation on its walls; thus, although Philpot had an earlier form, having included several portraits of black models in his 1923 exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery, these works stood out. They summarize the main axes of Philpot’s work.

Pallant House Gallery, ChichesterGlyn Philpot, Portrait of Henry Thomas in profile (1934-1935)

Philpot had achieved wealth and fame as the company’s portrait painter – the successor to John Singer Sargent – but in the 1930s made a modernist shift that reduced his commissions and income while allowing development as a artist exploring themes of identity and representation. These themes were important to him as both a Catholic and a gay artist. Simon Martin, director of the Pallant House Gallery and curator of the exhibition, notes that “Philpot’s career has been defined by seemingly opposite contradictions: between tradition and modernity; socialite portraits and unknown black models; and religious subjects and bold expressions of queer identity at a time when it was illegal to be gay.

1929 was a significant year for Philpot. as when he first met Henry Thomas, the male model of these three works. Thomas was a stowaway from Jamaica, who came to Britain as a stowaway on a merchant ship. It was also the year Philpot became a founding member and first president of the Guild of Catholic Painters, founded as part of the centenary celebrations of Catholic emancipation in Britain.

The Triple Epiphany and Balthazar are both included in “Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit”as well as its previous Angel of the Annunciation (1925) and a bit later Resurgam (1930). In 1930, Philpot, under the influence of Matisse, Picasso, but also German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), abandons its traditional style based on the Old Masters for the clean lines of Art Deco modernism. He then focused on “modern interpretations of Greek and Roman myths, which he no doubt used to explore themes related to his homosexuality under the guise of classicism.”

He also painted a series of exquisite still lifes, watercolors produced in North Africa and paintings of Russian circus performers and ballet dancers, wonderful examples of which can all be seen at Pallant House.

Angel of the Annunciation is a stunning image that places the viewer in or beside Mary, and in which a Pre-Raphaelite Gabriel, as he looks up at Mary, “steps forward with an anemone flower, almost as if he was about to pierce the picture plane, figuratively bringing the divine presence of the angel close to us.” As Simon Martin notes, this “has the effect of making our experience of the arrival of the ‘angel direct and without intermediary’.

Private collection Photo © Piano Nobile Glyn Philpot, Profile of Man with Hibiscus Flower (Felix) (1932)

Resurgam quotes the format of Piero della Francesca The resurrection, but presents us with a sensual depiction of a young Christ emerging from a chest tomb as a sleeping soldier of Pilate’s guard lies beside it. Thomas Bromwell has suggested that “the erotic charge of this painting subverts Catholic iconography” and in doing so, “Philpot achieves a reconciliation of homosexuality with the religious image that he otherwise struggled to achieve in his own life” . With this image, Philpot looks towards “a future linked to eschatological resurrection and its homosexual acceptance”.

Martin argues that “along with his society portraits and subject paintings, Philpot created space for the sensitive portrayal of the black man, not as a racist stereotype, but as handsome, modern, and elevated to the aesthetic ideal. nudes and portraits in the West. Culture.”

This is what we see in Balthazar, where Philpot avoids the other Magi to “focus entirely on the King of Africa who brings myrrh to the infant Jesus”. “With his head held high, he is portrayed as powerful, noble and dignified.” He does not look at us, but towards the Holy Family, placing us in a privileged position, as if he were witnessing the arrival of Balthasar among the Holy Family. Philpot paints in this way and with this sensitivity because, says Martin, “As a queer man, Philpot was a social outsider himself, and so it is tempting to believe that he identified with an outsider from another guy.”

‘Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit’ is at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, until 23 October. Telephone 01243 774557. pallant.org.uk