The Girl in the Green Jumper: The Story of Cyril Mann, The Forgotten Artist.

ECSTASY, 1963 by CYRIL MANN Oil on canvas. 61 x 91.5cm, Private Collection

Set in London in the 1960s and 70s, The Girl in the Green Jumper, is both a memoir and art book written and compiled by Renske Mann, who for twenty years, lived with British figurative artist, Cyril Mann.

In 1959 Renske van Slooten, as she was then, left The Hague for London. She met Mann the following year. Mann had had a tumultuous life, full of artistic promise which had earned him several West End gallery shows and many disappointments. It was not merely ill luck, Mann was an irascible man, prone to rages, which alienated patrons.

At the time Renske meets him, Mann has more or less retreated to the living room of his tiny council flat to paint and he’s earning a crust teaching at a further education institute. This is where Renske first set eyes on him. She had been led there by a former art student. Renske sees the hold Mann has on his students. The class takes place in revered silence. She, in turn, feels his ‘charisma’ but is baffled by her attraction to him. Unkempt, unloved and a genius. In her memoir she says: ‘His air of distracted intensity reminded me of a sketch I had seen of Leonardo da Vinci in old age’.

In the book there is a self-portrait of Mann, dating from several years earlier, in crayon and chalks. It shows a frowning man with a receding hairline, hurt written all over his face.

In this highly engaging and revelatory book, Renske endeavours to resurrect the forgotten artist. We learn about his life with Renske and his backstory, with first wife Mary Jervis-Read, who walked out on him with daughter Sylvia Mann. Sylvia was later to become a published writer and poet.

Undeterred by her lover’s former failed marriage, Renske set up shop with him in his tiny high-rise flat in Islington, cluttered with canvases, paints and easels. In a rush of love, she recognises her calling: to devote herself to him and to his art. To put Mann back on the artistic map.

The paintings in the book attest to a remarkable talent and there are plenty to feast the eye on. Mann’s talent is visible from childhood. Aged fourteen, he painted Dark Satanic Mills, 1925 and was the youngest artist ever to earn a scholarship to the Nottingham School of Art.

Dark Satanic Mills is a curious hybrid style painting where we can clearly see Mann’s reverence for Cezanne and Van Gogh. He would admire them throughout his life. A mill with tall chimneys churns out smoke into a swirling blue sky. The swirling smoke and sky above the mills recall Van Gogh’s asylum paintings . Mann’s childhood had been blighted by his father’s mental instability brought about by the shell shock he suffered after WW1. He spent most of his life in a mental institution. Mann felt close to the tormented Van Gogh and his energetic way of painting. Van Gogh’s  impasto technique, of applying paint to the canvas in great quantity, so that the brush strokes were emphasised, was a technique Mann would employ throughout his life. The trees in the painting could have been extracted from a Cezanne painting. The picnickers are bathed in a South of France light in direct contrast to the gloomy mill in the background.

His Paris paintings show Mann’s continued obsession with lighting effects. In Place de la Concorde, Paris. 1937 below, people sit around a gushing fountain looking into the sun. Even though two thirds of the painting is dazzling sunlight, our eye is drawn to the dense, silhouetted figures.

PLACE DE LA CONCORDE, PARIS, 1937 Cyril Mann Oil on canvas, 48 x 58cm. Private Collection

In Paris before WW2, Mann was probably at his happiest. He was able to paint with complete freedom, thanks to his generous sponsor, Erica Marx, who financed his studies at the Royal Academy and in Paris.

There are many paintings to admire in the book, not only landscapes, urbanscapes of London, still lifes. For me, his portraiture and nudes impress the most. Renske was his model and in true model tradition, she endured hours of uninterrupted torture in their chilly flat in Bevan Court, Islington.  Ecstasy, 1963 (shown in the title heading) is a voluptuous, expressionistic work. Renske’s relaxed, luxuriant pose gives the illusion she is in a sumptuous boudoir. She was in fact lying on a fold-out Z-bed.

This is the beauty of Renske’s memoir, which aims to both celebrate Mann’s art and show you the real suffering that went with it – suffering for both artist and model. As a model, Renske was tortured by Mann’s demands. Mann forbad her from closing her eyes as she held the pose for Ecstasy, as he manically painted her before the sunlight faded. And since he painted without preliminary sketches, the act of painting was rendered more fraught. If the canvas went awry, Mann scrapped the painting. This ‘in the moment’ painting, was not for the faint hearted. For Renske it was even more anxiety-making. A good painting, Mann was ecstatic, a bad painting, depressed for days, close to a breakdown. That is the meaning of the painting Ecstasy. We are talking about Mann’s euphoria at having produced a hit!

Mann’s self-portraits fascinate too. From golden-locked, blue-eyed, twenty-six-year-old (with a passing resemblance to actor Ralph Fiennes as a young man) pain already marking his expression, to the remarkable Ecce Homo, 1978 painted one year before his death, where Mann is displaying increasing mental instability. Bearded, with receding hairline and long straggly hair, Mann stands before us, bare-chested, trousers and pants around his knees, fleshy penis hanging down. His expression is both defiant and dull. Defying the doctor’s orders, he is smoking a cigarette.

Renske has written a poignant memoir on an early part of her life which was both an adventure and an exhausting challenge – a Sisyphean labour in fact. She could never make Mann happy. Some contemporary readers would see Mann’s control of the much younger Renske as manipulative and abusive. It’s a lot more complicated than that of course as Mann suffered several breakdowns.

Mann loved Renske. A letter written from his hospital bed to her in 1980 shows his affection and gratitude for her devotion. ‘You can cease to love but you will never get rid of mine… You’ve done your twenty years chores on me. Now think of yourself and live fully’ P161. He wishes her well in her new relationship with Marion, a journalist. Renske and Marion are still together today. This is a gripping read and the reproductions of Mann’s paintings are of the highest quality.


The Girl in the Green Jumper. My Life with the Artist Cyril Mann’ is published by Pimpernel Press :

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