Christopher Wood (1901-30)
The present work depicts a wrestling match and is one of a small number of drawings and watercolours painted in preparation for the prestigious Luna Park commission...
This enigmatic work is by Christopher Wood, one of the most celebrated yet tragic artists of the 20th Century...
In late-1929 Wood was commissioned by Boris Kochno (1904-1990) to design the set for a new ballet he was producing. Kochno had recently assumed creative control of the Ballet Russes on the death of Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), and his new ballet, ‘Luna Park’ or ‘The Freaks’, was to be debuted at the 1930 Cochran Revue at the London Pavilion. The performance was set at Luna Park, a real-life amusement attraction near Porte Maillot in Paris, and tells the story of a group of circus ‘freaks’ – including a six-armed man and one-legged ballerina - who rebel against the ringmaster when he is off-stage. They escape from the niches in which they were told to stand and dance, leaving only their fake limbs. The ringmaster is left humiliated in front of the audience on his return and the performance ends with the ringmaster jumping into one of the niches, in which the fake limbs are now shaking wildly, before pulling the curtain down.
The present work depicts a wrestling match and is one of a small number of drawings and watercolours painted in preparation for the prestigious Luna Park commission. It was painted at the amusement park in Paris from which the ballet took its inspiration - presumably in the famous sports arena which would often host high-profile boxing matches. As the opponent in black enters the ring, the ringmaster – who may also be one of the circus ‘strongmen’ - addresses the spectators in the bottom left, who Wood depicts in his characteristically shrewd, direct manner. The other spectators, however, are treated in an altogether more sympathetic way – especially the young men who all cut fine figures with strong, angular jawlines and delicate facial features. It is remarkable example of Wood’s ability to capture a broad range of human character and emotion in a limited palette, and like many of his works at this date, has a harmonious but inexplicably uncomfortable composition.
Wood was born in Knowsley, Lancashire in 1901, the son of a doctor, Robert Lucius Wood and his wife Clara. He had an incredibly close relationship with his mother, to whom he wrote thousands of letters throughout his life. At the age of fourteen whilst recovering from septicaemia – a debilitating illness which left him with a permanent limp – he began to draw and in 1919 briefly studied architecture at Liverpool University. The following year in 1920 Wood was invited by the wealthy French collector Alphonse Kahn (1870-1948) to Paris and in 1921 he enrolled at the Academie Julian. In Paris he became an integral member of the artistic scene, meeting Augustus John (1878-1961) and Antonio de Gandarillas, a Chilean diplomat, who introduced Wood to Picasso (1881-1973).
Gandarillas was married (though homosexual) and lived a fast and extravagant lifestyle, but his relationship with Wood (who was bisexual) lasted a lifetime and survived Wood’s dalliances with Jeanne Bourgoint (1905-1966) and Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). The couple travelled around Europe and North Africa together and it was at this time that Wood became addicted to opium. Returning to London, he joined the London Group and the Seven and Five Society in 1926 and his work became increasingly admired for its charming naivety – a quality seen in the present work.
In 1927 Wood became friends with Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and his wife Winifred (1893-1981) with whom he exhibited at the Beaux Art Gallery in 1927. A solo exhibition at the Tooth Gallery in April 1929 soon followed and he exhibited again with the Nicholsons in Paris, having worked on several paintings whilst visiting Brittany. It was the work he had produced in Brittany that was supposed to open the Wertheim Gallery in London that October, but returning to England, severely addicted to opium, he began to believe that he was being pursued and threatened by those around him. He visited his mother and sister in Salisbury on the 21st August 1930 and threw himself under a train bound for London at the premature age of thirty.
 For a thorough overview of this commission see Norris, K., 2016. Christopher Wood. London: Lund Humphries, pp.77-84
 For further examples see Chronological List of Pictures in Newton, E. 1938, Christopher Wood: His Life And Work. London: William Heineman Ltd, p.86