For all his early success as a painter and his later celebrity as a doomed friend of the Bloomsbury group, Mark Gertler has proved an elusive figure in art history since his suicide in 1939. The problems of understanding his life, and assessing his contribution to painting, are complicated by our knowledge that his fame was achieved largely through association. We know him as Dora Carrington's temperamental lover and as a hanger-on to the coat-tails of the rest of Bloomsbury. We know him through D H Lawrence's portrait of the disturbed young sculptor in Women in Love; as the "crude young genius" of V S Pritchett's story "The Skeleton", and as the self-absorbed politician of Virginia Woolf's short story "Solid Objects". Today, his most celebrated painting, The Merry-Go-Round (1916), hangs prominently in Tate Modern as a compelling statement on the First World War. But its relationship to his life and the rest of his work remains overlooked.
Sarah MacDougall's new study of Gertler - the first biography in more than 30 years - is therefore a timely attempt to explore this complex artist. Born in London in 1891 to immigrants from Galicia, Gertler shared his first home in the slums of the East End with 25 others. He found there a vital and intense community that influenced his early work and provided much of the inspiration for his most powerful paintings. He was a talented child artist; in 1908, he became the first working-class Jewish student of his generation to enrol at the Slade School of Fine Art.
MacDougall chronicles all this diligently enough, but her extensive quotation from secondary sources, including Mendel, a semi-biographical novel written by the artist's friend Gilbert Cannan, can be irritatingly obstructive. She is most persuasive in her portrayal of the young Gertler, who was never happier than when sketching his mother in the kitchen, or working on still lifes and other domestic interiors.
His life changed with his introduction to smart society; his supporters included Walter Sickert, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, Henry Moore and Lady Ottoline Morrell. But he soon began to lose his way, rather as MacDougall's biography does. With such a large cast of characters, Gertler's presence in the middle section of the book becomes obscured by yet another reminder of the cruelties and excesses of the Bloomsbury set.
Mark Gertler was always acutely aware of the conflicts within his own character. He longed to be taken seriously for his art. "What one does in one's art, that is the breath of one's being," he once wrote, adding: "What one does in one's life, that is a bagatelle for the outsiders to fuss about." MacDougall's decision to concentrate on the often tawdry life, without any serious critical assessment of the art, leaves a disappointing vacuum in an otherwise scholarly account of a talented but sadly unfulfilled artist.
Nicola Upson is the author of Mythologies: the sculpture of Helaine Blumenfeld (Overlook Press)