In a 1962 letter, sent from South Godstone in Surrey, Henryk Gotlib wrote to Ruth Borchard:
‘I have found a self-portrait painted between 1955-6. I had forgotten it all together – I do not know how – it is a good work.’
His richly impastoed oil painting has roots in French painting, notably Gauguin, the Pointillistes and Bonnard, and in the Expressionism of Corinth, Kokoshka, Soutine and others – but influences on his work always remain tantalisingly subtle and elusive. He was true to what in 1929 he had called ‘the original vision… the subject of the first dazzlement’.
This self-portrait shows a man of distinctive identity, who is yet utterly immersed in nature. His posture is oddly asymmetric, his right, almost sparring arm extends forward, iridescent in the sunlight; his left side, in the shadows, slopes and tugs downwards. His gait suggests that he may be out walking vigorously, enjoying the air. Background shapes suggest the form of a dense green tree, a quite dynamic entity. Further striations of vibrant red, yellow, green and blue may suggests contours and layers of hilly landscape. The right of the picture is taken up by the sturdy form of a tall tree trunk.
Though a close look indicates that the artist is fully clothed, for all intents and purposes he might as well not be. It is his bodily presence that is painted, not his outward form. Composed of swathes of almost feathery brushstrokes in a daring range of radically harmonious colours, elements of leaves, bark, human flesh and clothes seem to be mystically inter-connected, without sacrificing distinctive elements.
Born in Cracow in 1890 into a middle-class Jewish family, Gotlib studied, before 1914, at art schools in Cracow, Vienna and Munich, living in France for much of the 1920s. Visiting London in 1938, he met Janet Marcham whom he married six weeks later in Paris. In Cornwall in 1939, he found himself unable to return to Poland when war broke out, and lived in Britain for the rest of his life.
In a 1957 essay, he wrote:
‘I have painted cows and trees, nudes and angels, apples and skies all my life and still I am not sure of their material reality. The only thing I am sure of is the reality of colour.’