Life & Culture

The Girl in the Green Jumper book review: Portrait of a needy genius

An enthralling account of a muse’s life with troubled artist Cyril Mann


The Girl in the Green Jumper by Renske Mann
Pimpernel Press £30

A contender for “most tragic British artist of the 20th century,” according to the art critic Mark Hudson in his insightful introduction, Cyril Mann extended the boundaries of figurative art with his exploration of the impact of sunlight on the figures he painted. “Don’t move. Don’t you f****** move!“ he yelled at his wife one morning, as sunlight streamed through the window. The world – including Renske, his model, muse, inspiration and greatest advocate – was simply material for his artistic compulsion.

Renske Mann (nee van Slooten), the eponymous girl in the green jumper, was married for 20 years to the artist Cyril Mann. She met him in 1959, soon after arriving in London from the Netherlands, at a further education institute where he taught. He was 48, she 20, the daughter of a Dutch Jew from Java and an Indonesian mother. After the war, the family were expelled by Indonesia’s military dictator Sukarno, reaching Holland destitute to become victims of racial discrimination. Cyril, an outsider of a different hue, instantly attracted her.

 Renske saw him as a genius she could foster, at first with the pittance she made as a secretary, eventually with the salary of a PR director for Scholl, allowing him to use his artistic materials more lavishly. Cyril was an irascible individual, inclined to bite the hands that fed him, but his uncompromising candour and abhorrence of fads were functions of his genius.

“His objective – in common with many great artists of the past – was to create a new, more vibrant realism. He wanted to make people see light and shadow in a new way,” writes Renske. Her book abounds in beautifully produced examples of Mann’s work, from the precocious Dark Satanic Mills, painted in 1925 when Cyril was only 14, to the 1963 masterpiece Ecstasy in which Renske’s naked body is “only a surface on which sunlight, rapidly drifting through our window, would bounce in constant movement.”

Renske’s account of their relationship reads like a real-life La Bohème, Cyril, the prototype impoverished artist, often surviving with the support of Jewish benefactors such as Erica Marx, his first sponsor, and Michael and Sylvia Leibson who noticed Cyril’s work among the dross hanging from the railings of Hyde Park, like diamonds in the dust. Cyril never wanted galleries to exhibit his paintings, but when the Alwin Gallery in Brook Street featured 50 of them in their inaugural show, sales achieved more than Renske earned in a year. One was requested by the Getty Museum at four times the price paid but the buyer refused to resell it.

Renske admits she “began to loathe his neediness, his pathetic demands for praise and reassurance,” yet, oddly, accepts responsibility for the breakdown of their marriage. As attuned to the artist as to his art, she has produced a book brimming with insights into the personality of a man compelled to interpret the world through the medium of his prodigious gift, and sympathises with that predicament. Her book explains the inner workings not only of Cyril, but, by extension, artistic geniuses such as his hero Van Gogh, driven by their calling to produce work which, while enhancing the lives of others, propels its creators, and their partners, into despair and worse. 

“In 2013, a commemorative plaque was placed on Bevin Court, the Islington council flats where Cyril and Renske had started their married life… It was the first time that a social housing block had been graced with a plaque,” Liz Hodgkinson informs us in her Appendix. Renske’s book is an important stone in the still-developing edifice of the reputation of an artistic genius.

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