Tuesday 27 October 2009

About art

From The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska:

" In 1948, Grace Cossington Smith painted one of her few self-portraits. It is not a great painting: the colours are muddy and lack her characteristic clarity and sharp manipulation of light. Its composition is unexceptional. Nevertheless, in thinking about Grace Cossington Smith in particular, and women artists in general, it is a painting I return to, and not because it is the only one I know in which she is wearing spectacles. The spectacles slightly emphasise the size of her eyes, from which I infer they were reading glasses: I have no evidence that she was a myope. The painting has, however, everything to do with sight: with seeing, with being seen, wanting to be seen; and with not being seen. And there is nothing straightforward about any of that if you are a woman and an artist.

The portrait is striking for the uncompromising plainness with which Grace Cossington Smith presents herself. Photos of her as a young woman show a pretty, smiling girl. In middle age, she paints herself stark and unadorned. A private face, a face without compromise: the face, it seems to me, of a woman who has renounced the vanity of being seen, and yet presents herself in her not-to-be-seen face. Simone de Beauvoir, at about the same time, in 1949, when 'The Second Sex' was published though not yet translated into English, was arguing in ways that were then quite startling, and now hardly commonplace, that the function of woman in our culture as man's other is intimately connected with speech, and with sight. By being all that man is not, woman reflects him back in glory: transcendent to her immanent, subject to her object. He speaks; she listens. he sees; she is seen. Like a mirror, it is she who reflects: it is she who is seen, and in being seen, sees. The face Grace Cossington Smith paints is the face of a woman who is not available for this service, yet sees, and demands to be seen, in the seeing of the non-seen. It is an uneasy challenge she makes to herself, and to her viewer.

The self-portrait was painted just before the first of the interiors that were to dominate Grace Cossington Smith's late work. It shares the same technique: those small blocks of colour in broad brush strokes which require us to move backwards and forwards to find our own focal range.

In those late interiors, in the last phase of her work, Grace Cossington Smith was painting out of a daily solitude, living alone in the family house where parents had did and from which siblings had departed. Do we see here the representation of a spinsterly existence: single beds, neat cupboards, empty hallways? Or the riches of solitude; empty rooms filled with possibilities? Doors opening onto hallways, windows opening onto verandahs and gardens, drawers and cupboards allowing us to glimpse their treasures? To my eye these interiors are by way of being self-portraits of a woman who has resolved the tension between her own ability to see and the seeing, or being seen, that is required of her: a woman who has fully withdrawn from the gaze of the world to discover not a defensive retreat, but the fullness of a solitude that society deems empty. They are the work of a woman with strong hands.

Take 'Interior with Wardrobe Mirror' (1955) which is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In it a mirror of a wardrobe door swings open in the centre of the painting, where it invited our own reflection - and in that invitation we see the absence of the painter whose image should face directly into that shiny surface. Instead it reflects a door which opens across a verandah, across a lawn, to trees and a distant sky. Where the artist should stand, stands instead an invitation to the world, to all that is beyond. That is the fullness her solitude has produced.

Whereas the colours in the self-portrait had been murky - dull greens, muddy browns, flushed pinks - in the interior they are clear and luminous: the yellows of sunlight and ochre, every shade of red, vermilion to the tenderest pink, touches of green, pure blue, a surprising mauve. In the self-portrait seeing and being seen are held in a painful tension, a dark and punishing solitude that contains as much refusal as release; in the interior we see the fullness of a feminine space once so ambivalently inhabited, and connected, in Grace Cossington Smith's words to 'a golden thread running through time', and to 'the silent quality which is unconscious and belongs to all things created'. "

I've pages and pages in my journal of recent scrawled notes on a film I loved and an exhibition I didn't care for, and am having a hard time making anything coherent of them. Cogent and creative criticism must be one of the hardest things to formulate, especially when the brain is bloody tired. I don't want to leave these aside and never get around to putting any words to such strongly felt responses and when I was re-reading The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska a fabulous and unusual book introduced to me last year by a review from Litlove, I found myself particularly drawn to this enlightening and deeply felt passage about a painter I was not familiar with, and wondering: why do I like this so much? Partly because I'm sympathetic to Modjeska's feminist analysis, of course. But that would not have been enough to make the paintings live in my mind's eye before I saw them, to send me running to the Internet in search of Frances Cossington Smith, or to make me turn the paragraphs over and over, as I did both on the page and in my memory.

So why is this so good? I think because it combines a deeply felt emotional empathy with a strong and informed intellectual argument and much patient detail, laid on carefully but lightly. Also because it ranges seamlessly between a close-up and a panoramic view, between concrete observation and imaginative speculation. I shall hold this in mind while having another go at writing my own reviews.


Zhoen said...

You've pointed me there as well.

I imagine it takes a particular flavor of passion and technical skill to write inspiring reviews.

Litlove said...

I cannot tell you how happy I am that you have loved The Orchard. There is so much in that book that speaks to me directly and powerfully and I think your analysis of Modjeska's style is just right. That's all I ask for in a commentary so you have done everything right as far as I am concerned!

Beth said...

Jean, what a wonderful, quiet, and piercingly intelligent essay you've given me to start my day! I don't know Smith's paintings and will look them up, but I really appreciate your feminist perspective on them and on her; it certainly speaks to me and some things I've been noticing about myself in recent years, especially the peace and calmness of certain interiors where a woman's presence is allowed to be fully itself. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. What I love about your blog is that you have "perfect pitch" in what you write. It draws the reader in.

Thanks for giving me a thought-provoking lunch hour!


Jean said...

Oops, Beth and others, I think I didn't make the quotation marks big enough. The main part of this post is Drusilla Modjeska's essay, not mine - I wish I could write liek that!