It’s 40 years ago today that the painter Gluck died. Best known today for their striking self-portraits and, perhaps more so, blurred gender lines: Gluck abhorred gender specificity, and took on many of the traits that were usually associated with men at the time. They smoked cigars and dressed in double-breasted suits; Gluck took a wife and, later, a lover – Edith Shackleton Heald, a famed journalist with whom Gluck lived at the remarkable Chantry House, Steyning, from the end of the Second World War until Heald’s death in 1976. (My grandmother lived a hundred meters from Gluck in Steyning for about a decade; every time I walk past Chantry House to my grandmother’s grave I recognize that they must’ve known each other, if only by sight, and long to ask so many unaskable questions.)
Gluck’s star has been on the rise for the past several years, their artworks galloping in price and, just in the past 12 months, being featured with exhibitions at the Fine Art Society and Brighton Museum (ongoing through March) and as the hero image of Tate Modern’s major Queer British Art exhibition. It is the portraits, particularly a striking self-portrait and dual ‘self’ portrait (“YouWe”) of Gluck and wife Nesta Obermer, who may have remained Gluck’s lifelong love even after their acrimonious split at the time of the affair with Heald, that usually stand out among Gluck’s artworks, along with the ‘Gluck frame’ – a type of stepped frame the artist designed to allow paintings to merge into the wall.
But the artist’s landscapes should be part of any conversation about Gluck’s greatness. Born into the aristocracy, in youth Gluck was sketched by Dedham’s conservative landscape master Alfred Munnings – the connection to landscape painting was early and at the highest level.
From Before The Races (1924) to Nevermore (1964) and The Wave & Cottages in a Field, both from 1966, Gluck’s landscapes show the realization of the artist’s philosophy of subsummation, merging, blurring of lines – small yet detailed hills, flooded jetties, hidden cottages accompany great, canvas-filling skies or waters. Gluck’s clouds are washes of wisps, post-structuralist clouds as opposed to Constable’s or Munning’s articulated and masses.
I see in those landscapes’ concentration on the oceanic the same dark-mystic’s desire to melt into one’s surroundings (albeit with none of the imagery) as in Gluck’s arguably most powerful painting, the surrealist-inspired image of a dead fish found on Worthing Beach, Credo (Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light). In this painting made towards the end of their life, Gluck wrote of Credo (as quoted in The Old Weird Albion):
“I am living daily with death and decay, and it is beautiful and calming. All order is lost; mechanics have gone overboard — a phantasmagoric irrelevance links shapes and matter. A new world evolves with increasing energy and freedom soon to be invisibly reborn within our airy envelope.”
Gluck, August, 1895 – 10 January, 1978.
Diana Souhami’s excellent biography and the catalog from the FAS exhibition are both excellent resources worth checking out.