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Archive for the ‘women artists’ Category


The regular rape of Offred: the hands are Serena Joy’s the wife, into whose lap Offred must lie, and as the commmander drives his penis into her (no emotion allowed to be shown)

Friends,

I’ve gone on — like many others — to watch three more weeks of A Handmaid’s Tale, and have been gripped not only by the story and characters themselves, but how often the world of Gilead parallels what I’ve experienced in life in much quieter, muted, subtler ways, prophecy what can be the outcome of such behavior and modes such as we are seeing in the Trump’s regimes attempts to repress protest, and erase women’s rights insofar as they can.

Diane Reynolds has written brilliantly about the impotence of the chief males, specifically commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in episode 4 (Nothing sexy about men or violence; subversive television): how rare it is in mainstream film to have a central male impotent. I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don’t need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way. The second season of Outlander uses impotence: sometimes Jamie (Sam Heughan) cannot have an erection or any form of sex with Clare (Caitriona Balfe) because he is so terrified by the trauma of his nightmares about how the British police Officer, Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), drove Jamy to submit to sex, by torture, horrific physical cruelty) smashing Jamy’s hand), branding and taunting him over the branding. The chauffeur (as I call him), Nick (Max Minghella) as Guardian, comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up “the natural male.” I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

In Episode 5 I was startled to see the film suddenly “descend” (?) into the usual heterosexual sex scene, here between Nick and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Otherwise and even here it’s very grim. there seems little joy anywhere. When June and her boyfriend or partner, Luke (O-T Bagfenle) go out with their baby daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) it is never to a park, to a green place or anywhere peaceful,not one quiet moment except at home in bed having sex in darkened spaces; they are inside garish night clubs. They go to noisy, glittering neon-lit amusement parks. I was surprised to to hear Offred (June at the time) ask Luke to leave his wife. First I did not know she was living or going out with a married man, and then though I can see why she does not want to be a secondary supplement, I probably in life would not feel that comfortable about a woman who told me she had demanded her boyfriend leave his wife for her. I would probably identify as much with the wife. I saw this as part of the way the film does not sentimentalize or idealize the life before this dystopia. She’s not much a reader. I also saw the use of iron all around Nick’s hips as equating his phallus with guns, iron, macho male hardness. I understood Offred was doing this in part to impregnate and thus save herself from deportation “to the colonies” (a form of transportation and thus death). But the scene was not much different from many of the sexual scenes in Outlander

I remember in the 1990 film the chauffeur was kind (not at all threatening as when in episode 5 when she gets aggressive he suddenly threatens to “turn her in”), and when in the film Offred escapes, she escapes with him. A new family is re-formed. He is not a macho male in the way of this one and Natasha Richardson herself in appearance and much about her is “sweeter,” more lovely, not aggressive. He invites her up to his (in effect) tree-house. There are so many more trees and greenery in the 1990s.

Diane has written on this one too, especially on the inchoate rage of the women who suffers female genital mutilation (“When dystopia is better than real life …. “). While there is no female genital mutilation in Atwood’s book (the ritual had not become as well known in the 1980sas it is today), in the real world in Africa and the middle east, women are subject to genital mutilation and this mutilation is what is driving Ofstevens when she loses it and darts into the car. We see more of the vicious commander: we see while he seems gentle talk to him and the Pence like ideas come out and his own elation in his power and control. Again like the real world.

In my present mood tonight it seems to reflect the real world — like when the woman Ofstevens tries to drive away, in frantic attempt to escape, and then mows over, runs over people, for revenge. The men with their machine guns gunning her down reminded me of a scene in DC the summer of 2013 where a group of police gunned down and murdered a black woman, Miriam Carey, who had by mistake hit a cement barrier; she was terrified of them as they pushed their guns into her car, and when she scooted around them (not running anyone over), they chased her down and killed her — they could have killed the baby in the chairseat. Didn’t care.


Their scrabble game

Episode 6 offers our first glimmers of hope. A looped set of flashbacks showing us some initial crucial scenes in the war featuring Fred and Mrs Waterford (Serena Joy, her ironic name, Yvonne Strahovski). It appears Serena Joy was a strong aggressive woman, a scholar, but she followed this crazed set of deeply anti-humane anti-women ideals and she ended up thrown out of the public world, with nothing to do, her two books (one is called A Woman’s Place) are last seen in the trash. We see them as a middle class couple so well dressed and equals. Fred emerges as a man partly made into a villain when he is given such power and adulation. When we see the original relationship of the commander and his wife and how she originally was a published author, going to conferences, central in power structures:: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.


Serena Joy cursing Offred when it becomes clear that Offred is not pregnant

He also comes across as more human because for a second in the hour he succumbs to a natural desire: he is drawn to kiss Offred! He has tired of their scrabble, how she does not make him the central object of her stay in the room, and asks her to leave. She has to return to darkness, no books, no outlet and she finds herself turning around to beg to stay, and appear to want a kiss, some caress. Elisabeth Moss is a particularly powerful actress (see The Guardian for her presence as almost a guarantee of quality); her strong-structured face, her control over emotions she nonetheless projects as so intense they are almost breaking her within is just the kind of acting style this mini-series needsHe coldly allows this and then forcibly sticks his tongue in her mouth. She now has to submit, pretends to like it, and is seen washing her mouth out thoroughly next. He also astonishingly feels some guilt coming home as his ambassador negotiations are not going well: he seems to realize Serena Joy might have helped for real. And when he comes home he and she actually make love. He seems reluctant as if this is verboten.

So too does nature emerge with Nick and Offred. She visits but hates to have to make love for baby-making. She is in a deep rage by this point but somehow he calms her down. And they too are making love — not just having sex this time.

The visit by the ambassadors to a Spanish country (Mexico) includes a “dinner party” for the handmaid’s where they are told they will enjoy themselves. It turns out that the “damaged” handmaid’s must be kept out — orders of Mrs Waterford — lest as with slavery, the visitors see how viciously the girls are treated. One of the girls (with a gouged out eye) begins to cry. What enjoyment can she be imagining? Anything will do. I know the feeling. And then astonishingly Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shows some pity: she had promised them, they were looking ward to it, she objects to keeping them out, but of course acquiesces when Mrs Waterford says sternly, they cannot be seen as they will look bad (like slaves who were maimed if the owners cared). Aunt Lydia offers chocolate and treats as a substitute — the pathos as the girl accepts this replacement reluctantly.

Now once there everyone in strict ritual table form. Mrs Waterford presides as the wife. A conversation reveals to Offred it’s not oranges Gilead is trading with this outsider Spanish group: but the handmaids themselves. The commander had shown the children the handmaids had had. This Spanish country wants children; no one have been born in a long while. Like animals in a zoo will not produce children.

Just before the dinner and again afterward Offred is introduced to the Spanish ambassador, a woman. Mrs Waterford has warned her to give the right answers to this ambassadress. So (as Offred knows what the right answers are), she says she has chosen this state or condition and is happy with it. So stiffly briefly said. One can see something is wrong as the woman pretends she has had a big conversation. Clearly she has not.

Fast forward to the end of the hour and Offred is leaving for her morning walk; the ambassadress and her male sidekick are there. Again the ambassadress thanks her for telling so much. Offred can’t take it and blurts out the truth: they were captured, are beaten with cattle prods, raped, their eyes gouged out for punishment, if they are caught reading, they have finger cut off, twice, the whole hand. The woman now has to acknowledge but what does she say? she is so sorry. Offred says in reply, thank you but do something. The woman claims she cannot but we know she wants these woman as baby makers. And then she leaves and her male counterpart comes forward. He suddenly offers to help. Offred suspicious, he says he can get a note to her husband. Who is alive. Hesitant, shocked, and sudden gleam in her eyes, she does write on the pad. So there is another place in that beyond where her first friend fled on the train

What really gets me is how believable the scenes are. I feel I have seen versions of them in my society. Black man as prisoners for what they should not be jailed for kowtowed utterly. Slaves in the past saying they were happy, showing evidence of brutality. Pence’s desire for conversation therapy.


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

Another blog by Diane Reynolds’s blog on episode 6 (Nothing to lose but their chains?) one emphasizes how hard it is, how very dark the hour still is. Okay it was not as hard to take as the previous. Diane’s qualifications are we’ll-taken. The glimmers of hope I spoke of are only by contrast to the relentless cruelty and indifference to their victims we saw in the first 5 episodes. We see what I consider natural feelings that are good or at least kindly interactive on the face of it immediately come out. But it is true the commander is showing his power over Offred and she is repulsed but cannot show it. All relationship with him in her situation is horrible. It teaches us what it is to be a slave or powerless prisoner. If aunt Lydia feels compunction at not giving what she promised, she cerrtainly does not fight for the handmaid’s. The commander and Mrs Waterford’s love-making is also ruined at the core by their analogous relationship to the commander and Offred. Nick is similarly powerful over Offred — cant tell and their love making is again as the other pair suddenly a return to domineering heterosexual sex — it is what is understood as good sex in our culture by many. The ambassadress does not offer to help but will exploit and yes the ending is too pat: a coincidence too strong. But until now nothing yielding happened.

Further on the story level we can see a possible “out” for Offred. We see more the life was once very otherwise, there are communities outside that are decent we can hope. Didn’t have that before.

On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump’s utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn’t vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

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In a Disneyland sort of place

I have been reading the book again. It is not as relentless even in the opening The 2017 film makers made the whole thing so much tougher. As I read I am more appalled because I recognize my society in this book’s depiction The regimentation, the dysfunction, the coldness … And I reread the original ending. The book ends with a coda on on an academic conference decades later (2195) where someone reads a paper about this strange manuscript. Is it true? if so, what happened to these people? The participants in the session all profess great humanity, but they dissect the occurrences in the manuscript with startling indifference. It’s a bitter satire on academic papers and the way academics can behave around them: making the slightest of jokes, all flattery for one another. All the speakers are male; we are in a patriarachy still. Atwood has used time-traveling, movement forward suddenly to give us a sceptical and cold switch. It’s an astonishing sleight-of-hand. This mini-series is departing in just the way the 1990s film did, where Offred and her child escaped with the help of Nick. The positive elements of Episode 6 are those which led to the escape at the close of the 1990s film — though I agree with Diane these are counteracted by the heinousness of the commander’s use of power, by Offred’s revulsion, by the refusal of the Spanish ambassadress once she is told that Offred is a beaten terrified enslaved women to do anything — she just walks off.

Ellen

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Stories of 25 Dundee women

Friends,

Since part of the “mission” of my blog is to call attention to women artists and writers, feminists, and forgotten women’s real lives, I thought I’d alert my readers here to a new book on Scottish women written and arranged by the Lothian Women´s Forum of the WEA (Workers Educational Association). I was told about it by a German friend, Andrea Schwedler, who lived in Scotland for 16 years, now mourning the severance from the EU of the United Kingdom (itself possibly breaking up now that the Tories want to take Henry 8 powers and the Scottish and perhaps a majority of the Northern Irish voted to remain). While living there, Andrea was belonged to this forum. They asked themselves how do women want to be remembered when we are dead? — as opposed to how they are remembered (wives, mothers, sisters, nieces). What should be written on women’s graves? What are the differences in remembering women and men. They researched the different graveyards in Edinburgh — it all sounds very gloomy but it was an inspiring time for women working with other women, for meeting women from all walks of life.

Here is the day they launched their project:


Click to learn their names

Here are fourteen women whose lives and work the Lothian Association discovered and wrote about. Click on each of the gravestones and you’ll discover much information and insight into the individual woman’s life, e.g., Isabella Lucy Bird (who made Caryl Churchill’s table in Top Girls). Much less well-known is Agnes White Miller by Andrea, the struggle of an unmarried woman to live a fulfilled professional and personal life in the 19th century. Andrea also covered Mary Syme Boyd, a sculptor.


A carved dog

I can’t resist showing how after a day-long session on Scottish women writers, Excuse My Dust (a Dorothy Parker epitaph), they included one of my favorite 19th century writers, Margaret Oliphant

Four of the women on this page are women whose books I’ve read and liked, some I’ve discussed here, and six 18th century: Susan Ferrier, Elizabeth Hamilton, Chistian Isobel Johnstone, Mary Brunton, Charlotte Lennox, Jane Porter (Austen we know read Hamilton, Brunton and Lennox).


Said by Merryn Williams to be a highly original novel about the pains of marriage Agnes experiences (and deteriorate her character), how she is done in by a jealous upper class sister-in-law Beatrice, a single woman:

[Life is] full of broken threads and illogical conclusions, and lacks altogether the unity of a regularly constructed fiction, which confines itself to the graceful task of conducting two virtuous persons through a labyrinth of difficulties to a happy marriage … Yet at the same time everybody knows that there are many lives which only begin after that first fair chapter of youthful existence is completed ….

Reading the Dundee and Scottish women website has re-energized me to write a third series of women artists blogs. This series will not try to cover early modern through the 21st century but be tilted towards the 19th and 20th century. I’ll begin with Anna Dorothea Therbush (1721-82),


1762, Self-portrait

of course include Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825, a Scottish woman letter-writer and diarist, known for her time in South Africa, and water-colors from India), about whom a new biography has come out,

and conclude a third year and round on Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

I close this blog on a pair of poems by a Scottish poet of the early 20th century, Olive Fraser (1909-77)

Lines Written after a Nervous Breakdown.1

I’ve forgotten how to be
A bird upon a dawn-lit tree,
A happy bird that has no care
Beyond the leaf, the golden air.
I have forgotten moon and sun,
And songs concluded and undone,
And hope and ruth and all things save
The broken wit, the waiting grave.

Where is that mountain I must climb
To gain again some common time,
Not this stayed clock-hand that must be
Some foretaste of eternity?
Where is that task or terror that
Will wake a slow magnificat
From this dead sense, from these dull eyes,
That see no more to Paradise?

There is no night so deep as this
Inevitable mind’s abyss,
Where I now dwell with foes alone.
Feather and wing and breathing bone
And blessed creatures come not here,
But the long dead, the aguish fear
Of never breaking from this hold,
Encapsuled, rapt, and eras old.

There is no second of escape.
As with some forest-wandering ape
Whose sad intelligence may go
So far and nevermore may grow,
I am enchained most subtly by
A thousand dendrons ’til I die,
Or find my mountain, storm and shock
This graven hour and start the clock.

September 1964

Lines Written After a Nervous Breakdown.2

Come, lamefoot brain, and dance and be
A merry carnival for me.
We are alive in spite of all
Hobgoblins who our wits did call.
With ghosts and gallowsbirds we went
Hundreds of leagues ’til, fiercely spent,
We laid ourselves to weep and cry
Beyond the house of memory.

We have been lepers, and now run
To sit again within the sun,
And smile upon some country fair
With Punch and poor dog Toby there.
We, who did only think to die,
Now laugh and mock the revelry.
Up, barefoot brain, and fill your hall
With flags as for a festival.

Yet you are poor and slow to do
The blessed things I ask of you .
Haunting with spectres still and still
Remembering your dungeon’s chill.
Where you did cower and aye did grow
A frenzied circus for your foe,
Who sought you in the blood’s dim arc,
And in the night-time, in the dark.

Peace, friend, and think how we are here
Through dangers, desolations, fear.
We two alone, now all is o’er,
Will never move from pleasure more.
We two will sit like birds i’ the sun
And preen and pipe while others run
And straddle in the world’s proud play.
We have been night, who now are day.
October 1964

Olive Fraser was born in Kincadineshire, lived in Redburn, Nairn, graduated from Aberdeen University in 1927, Honors English degree, an award for most distinguished graduate in the arts; attended Girton College, Cambridge, Chancellor’s Gold medal for poetry 1935. She served in WRNS in World War II, and after was librarian at Bodleian. In 1956 she was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, put in an asylum from which she did not emerge until 1961 when a woman physician correctly diagnosed her problem as hypothyroidism. Helen M Shire has edited a volume of her poetry: The Wrong Music: the Poems of Olive Fraser (1909-77). Here is a much fuller biography with more poems, some in Scots.

(from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed. Catherine Kerrigan


Early 20th century Scottish Impressionism (found on-line in gallery of Scottish artists)

Ellen

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From the 1981 Sense and Sensibility: Irene Richards as Elinor is seen drawing and walks about with art materials (BBC, scripted by Alexander Baron)

Friends,

I found myself unable to reach the Jane Austen and the Arts conference held at Plattsburgh, New York last week. I have told why in my life-writing Sylvia blog.
Happily for me, the conference organizer was so generous as to offer to read the paper herself, and had it not been for a fire drill, would have. Two of the sessions, one mine was supposed to be part of, were sandwiched together so she read from the paper and described. I was told there was a good discussion or at least comments afterward. Since I worked for a couple of months on it — reread all six of the famous fictions, skimmed a lot of the rest, went over the letters — and read much criticism on ekphrastic patterns in Austen and elsewhere, the picturesque in Austen, her use of visual description, not to omit related topics like enclosure, a gender faultline in the way discussions of art are presented, I’ve decided to add it to my papers at academia.edu.

Ekphrastic patterns in Austen.

I hope those reading it here will find my argument persuasive, and my suggestion for further work on Austen using her discussions of visual art and landscape useful.


From the 1983 Mansfield Park Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price gazes at the maps her brother, William has sent her as she sits down to answer his latest letter or just write herself (scripted by Ken Taylor) – her nest of comforts in her attic includes window transfers of illustrations

Ellen

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Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …

Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):


Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:


Varo, A Paradise of Cats

She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:


Varo, Creation with Astral Rays


Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:


Varo, Vegetarian Vampires –they are eating watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, with a rose on the table, pet chickens nearby

When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:


Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko


Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:


Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books


Varo, A Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’s Office (1960)

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:


Here a woman is kept passive and is unnerved by a male head, with glaring eyes, he licks her neck


Varo, Unexpected Presence

Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.


Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

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A photograph of Remedios Varo in Mexico (with a pet cat)

Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.


Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.

I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.

The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:


Varo, Hibernation (1942)


Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.

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Varo, The Escape

All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:


Varo, Roulette (1955)

My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —


Varo, Troubadour

She does show a real melancholy or depression occasionally, a deep disquiet with the way she is living her life, what she is reading:

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science


Varo, [Self-]Encounter

At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances


Varo, The Flutist

Ellen

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Eileen Agar (1899-1991), a photo of herself (summer 1935)


Remedios Varo (1908-63), The Flutist (1955)

Carrington: I painted for myself. I never believed that anyone would exhibit or buy my work

Dear friends and readers,

At long last I return to my project on women artists (see first series). I had reached the mid- to later 20th century for a second series. Dora Carrington (1893-1932, Constant Artist) was my choice for the transition from 19th to 20th and early to near mid-20th century.

As I read to look at and read about the art of the last great artist for this 2nd series, Remedios Varo, I discovered she developed her distinctive art in the context a large mid-century movement, about or for which (unfortunately commonly) only a few male names have survived in public consciousness and readily available documentary records: the surreal movement, the most notable artist Andre Breton. Varo is part of a later generation. It’s one which crucially influenced male (Pablo Picasso) and female (Frida Kahlo) alike. The pictures, often nightmarish, symbolic in ways deliberately hard to decipher, capturing the barbarism of the first and second world wars (as these suddenly encompassing global conflicts are called) in learned symbolic and enigmatic ways is not understood nor liked. Many of the women who were involved with men in the movement or on their own made art use torn-off bits of the Freudian sexist psychoanalysis rightly rejected by most feminists (of whatever type). These women often survived by becoming the mistresses of these men; the war broke the curve of many of their careers; too many became isolated, were the third mistress or wife of one of the males; a few killed themselves and their art was not exhibited. Later retrospective exhibits simply omit women except in photographs as attached to the men.

The reality is also that women artists beyond those connected to the surrealists were influenced by them and their use of grotesque, often ugly images, pieces of women’s bodies, heads, with hidden terror as a strong motif, come out of this mid-century movement. The idea is to reject the false Barbie doll body that is imposed on women as a norm in the art of Alice Neel (1900-84) (I don’t reprint these lest they attract the wrong kind of attention to my blog). Paula Rego (b. 1935) paints an discreet version of this kind of thing:


Paula Rego, The Maids (she has also painted Germaine Greer)

Kahlo, Neel, Rego and others want to mirror the assault women feel in their private lives from the public world. What has survived most widely of these women are the hard feminist exposes of Kahlo, photo journalism (once in a while very funny but mostly group and autobiographical photos), and faery tale fantasies:


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Pastoral


Kati Horna (1912-2000): Couple with a dog

There are several books which as a whole or in part name these women and attempt to tell their lives and account for their art: I’ll be reviewing Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna in my blog on Varo,

and eventually Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves (a history of women’s art which traces it through the most common type of picture by a woman, of herself — cheap, available, explanatory).

For now I want to tell of Chadwick’s insightful astonishingly informative book. I say astonishingly because I came away with 24 names of working women artists. She included short biographies of many of them, and in her book tells of their lives and careers as she goes over their art. The book has many black-and-white images and groups of rich color reproductions.

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Kay Sage (1898-1963), Le Passage (1956)

How relevant Deborah Cherry’s thesis that women don’t want to work in the genres invented by men, and when they do so successfully, they change the male genre wholl

The first two chapters tell the central story: Andre Breton and a group of like-minded European men took to Freudian theory and began to make art which visualized an unqualifiedly sexist and symbolic macho male point of view. Picasso belongs to this group. No matter how polite and soft-spoken, understated is Chadwick, she shows Breton and most of the male surrealist artists to be utterly exploitative of women, using them for sexual pleasure and painting them as symbols to feed their vanity and pride. When the women exhibited after the war, they were made fun of — then surrealism was seen as the product of hysteria. The war was as devastating to them as to most other artists in Europe — most of these people seem to have lived and worked in France and when the Nazis took over they fled.

Was anything gained by the women who joined onto these men, beyond temporary meal tickets and what good times and liberty from the stifling conventions of their family backgrounds, when they came from impoverished circumstances and become someone’s mistress lifted out of that. They found themselves in an artistic group where artistic ideals (however sexist) were promulgated; they escaped the invisible prison existence of marriage, babies, and servicing a husband and family; those of them who broke away from these men in order to make art gradually found themselves. Those who accepted these men’s attitudes, had known nothing else. So many came from well to do families or doing well, who would not send girl to formal education after rudiments. Their intellect not trained except by themselves. They did have the enjoyment of these love affairs. Here and there a child is born They found a world of art to belong to — bookstores, exhibits, musical concerts, pleasure outings, parties. What those who began to fulfill themselves as artists had to do though for most of them was break away from the husband who wanted them to serve him (and of course he could have other women if he wanted). Too many ended up impoverished, alone, killed themselves. We see a woman intimidated by a lemur (associated with the night); mirrors and doors suggest a fearful immediate future:


Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), The Birthday — she was one of several woman artists who became for a while the partner of Max Ernst (a well-known admired surreal male artist)

Tanning is said to have liked reading Ann Radcliffe, Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Anderson; another women artist, Valentine Hugo uses an animal this way in her Dream o December 1929, it’s dream of unconscious talisman for women’s visionary powers.

The surreal male ideal visualizes a woman as an thereal child, or deeply sexual responsive (natch) vamp (with variations). A few manage to project a genuine self-image (not abstractions for world or parts of his body, one of sensibility rather than hallucination. Often they are picturing inward mental life, thoughts displaced and floating in a soup, pictures of much suffering; Wylie Sypher’s old thesis visual art of a period is a counterpart of its literature suggests the women painted the reality of their frightened or lonely consciousness of their body.

The third chapter on “women and sexuality” tells of individual women trying to find a “third way,” something to replace their roles as sex objects, wives, mothers, supporters (they made salaries) or sexually available compliant dreams. One problem I will have is I don’t want to reproduce pornography or anything which can attract the wrong attention so some of me images will seem tame. The pictures by surreal women artists in these chapters are depressive. Kahlo’s famous “women as a broken column” is typical. I take Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) and Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) to have escaped this prison by using large political events affecting women as their context.


Kollwitz, Woman with her dead Child (1963)

“The Female Earth,” Chapter four, is the longest and where the art of these surreal women artists is centrally described and reprinted. Chadwick says women artists searched for correspondence between the natural world and the unconscious: women in the form of mythic figures like Melusine stand for all powerful nature as female — but provides no explanation for the endless deformed and witheringly sick looks of the figures; a coastline is hideous (is this the only way to escape the confines of conventional life?) Mysticism where we have objects that look like wombs in which an agony has occurred or some miserable woman surrounded by fearful objects, distortions of natural world. Lots of fur. I find I like the playful images best:


Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), Fur Lined Teacup

The artists used automatic painting (letting yourself go), and sounds like the use of drugs was involved, and then one peson prodded on another into drawing or writing words down. Liberating the imagery of the unconscious so they say is done by relying on hallucination and chance techniques –- images of sea, tendrils, smoke, blobs of all sorts, distorted stars – avoid hero’s journey, animal images, fish, people like mummies, ghosts, leafy forms, abstract lines, circles, half circles and ellipses, squares, patterns. Women caressing one another — perhaps lesbian imagery I don’t recognize – protecting their genitals. Women with long beaks, when they are fairy tale like they are a little better, not so wretched. Faces drowning, brutality has terrified them into death like images. When they are in color, they are better, Those that make sense show women miserable. The photographs show women at work. Sexual encounters as explosive, jagged, time after initial shock. Woman as tree – not mentioned by Chadwick as old motif; trees become women. Center of lunar and reproductive cycles. She does see the terror, misery, pain, blood and piercing in Frida Kahlo, deep personal loss, wounded figures, cracked bodies, women hanging upside down by their feet. Kahlo’s Roots is an ironic variation on her husband’s fertile earth. Sage depicts psychic aridity. They reject conventional identification of nurture with women. Agar photographs strange rock manifestations – neolithic rocks by the sea. Discordance images of contemporary holiday-ers and prehistoric nature so goes into Egyptian deserts Psychic desolation becomes political metaphor


Marie Cerminova Toyen (1902-80), Au Chateau la coste (1946)

Chadwick says the in the women’s art is a refusal to differentiate, to assign certain images and areas of painting a greater weight and clarity; that give disturbing effect; all in glowing detail and we feel we have missed the crucial key. Yes that’s it, when we look at the images unless we begin to see the pictures as frantically feminist, they make little sense. The art of Leonor Fini shows her working on tiny things, flowers, plants, insects, debris thrown up by sea, with careful detail. Things loved in childhood take on new sinister meaning. A sphinx by Leonor Fini (1907-96) poses question about women artists in natural and metaphoric process –- this is again an art of fantasy, magic, transformation; ceremonies are depicted, suggesting an ancient world, a system of rites define the passing of time and placate the gods; we have a muse of Construction, devoid of any explanatory symbolism or narrative content. Fini makes paintings of stygian darkness and primordial chaos, states of consciousness dominated by social interaction but “underneath” ruled by instinctual drive and animal need: she would not show women as submissive or subordinate to man; this is an intuitive world too, the sphinx awaits awakening of consciousness.


Leonor Fini, Ceremony — this is a famous one (it seems to me to be a “dark side” of Arthurian myth)

Chadwick’s last chapter is called “The hermetic tradition. n these pictures and this section she again reiterates the male views: women are seen as controlled by childlike vision and magical powers; and he absorbs her into his experience. An artist named Valentine Penrose (1898-1978) saw herself as benign witch. Women’s central role is again to inspire, as a concept, a sorceress with power in creative process. Chadwick reprints Ithell Coluqhoun’s (1906-88) statement that she is creating occult gothic novels borrows, using grail literature. Eileen Agar’s paintings have as titles Mysterious Vessel, Mask of the Night, The Muse Listening. They bought into occult studies like Robert Graves’s absurd The White Goddess (about a chthonic divinity that rules the world). Imagery comes from alchemy.

When they fled the Nazis to Mexico, and re-grouped, or went elsewhere we find fantastic imagery, and the art is gradually transformed to mirror women’s social lives together (Carrington) or inner world of creativity as manifested in newly conceived traditional figures (Varo). A vision of life as a journey, of voyages, stardust, silent. In Mexico, Leonora Carrington wrote a one act play with druidic characters from ancient Britain, imagery from celtic rituals. We see dislocations of space and scale, trying to tamp down bad dreams, insomnia, and also shared visions of women as creative out of natural imagery of everyday life cooking, eating. Kay Sage *1898-1963) who had been born into wealth in the US, returned, went into retreat, and when her husband died, killed herself. Others women were lost in parts of cosmopolitan cultures of what cities they could afford (magazines)

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Dorothea Tanning, Guardian Angels (women need these for protection?) (1946)

In its conclusion the book became to me demoralizing. Chadwick persisted in appearing to respect the male way of inventing punitive and exploitative sexual imagery and many of the women were not able to make a substitute that was viable. They had to break away all together, turning to geology, animals (or their pictures don’t make sense because most are not as frank as Kahlo: the images we see are scary, ugly, hideous, if you get yourself to look at the stick figures you can see women being abused, women disconnected and images which reflect the barbarisms of WW2. Or they are of the natural and crockery (women’s things) world presented playfully now and again. All done indirectly and without words to explain. Chadwick is to be commended for her enormous patience, though her neutral presentation has the effect of endorsing misogynistic Freudianism. But this is the context for mid-20th century art: the visual equivalent of stream of consciousness.

Among the worst things at the book’s close are not just the women’s careers not getting anywhere for most pat, and the attitudes of Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim (1913-85). Both protested mightily against being put in a book on women artists. This is a prison, this is a ghetto, they say and the rest of it. But neither are not in the male books nor the exhibitions. Here again Kahlo and Varo transcend this: Kahlo refers herself to her real life; Varo holds herself apart: she uses women as instruments for creating life and beauty; she looks to create harmony, contemplative moods in which figures can function in positive ways we recognize.


Remedios Varo — this one reminds me of Bemelman’s famous Madeline pictures (a girl’s picture book)

Chadwick appears not to take the idea of a l’ecriture-femme seriously; she does not see that across the centuries women’s art focuses on the same kinds of imagery, uses similar cyclical structures, subjectivity, indirectness so she develops no firm alternative women’s aesthetic for the surreal movement.

So as per women’s tradition, Kahlo also painted this China Still Life — filled with her woman’s version of surreal imagery: growths of vegetables:

and her is Varo’s Flowers (her pictures of Paradise of Cats is too well known)

Ellen

 

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Carrie Fisher (1956-Dec 27th, 2016) and Debbie Reynolds (1932-Dec 28th, 2016)

I write about those days at a great distance – not only in terms of time. I cannot feel close to the young woman who went about with my name long ago … she is often strange to me, sometimes antipathetic, now and then, but for the self-conviction that stares at me from the printed page. There too I am at odds with her — Elizabeth Robins, suffragette-actress, who left an autobiography

I am the custodian of Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher off-the-cuff at a signing event

Friends and readers,

Not everyone coming here will recall that for a while I was writing a series of blogs on actresses, most of them 18th century, but my idea was to focus fairly on the profession of the actress, its history, and individuals. If Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher were not actresses, where are actresses to be found? I wrote about them on my Sylvia blog a few days after Carrie Fisher died of a massive heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the next day of deleterious heart event given the non-technical name, “broken-heart syndrome,” and stroke, in other words, intense grief at the loss of her daughter.

My daughters seemed to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. As a mother to daughters, I felt so touched over how the mother died, her grief too strong for her strained heart to sustain. Since then my (temporary) identification, interest in actresses, and curiosity has led to me to read about them, and feel empathy and much respect for both.

I didn’t realize the photo I found (and now prefaces this blog) came from Reynolds’s last appearance to pick up a much-merited reward for a life-time of performance from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2015. Both American sweethearts at age 19 (that was Reynolds’s age when she famously starred in Singin’ in the Rain): there is something about their particular permutation of the white gene pool — the round face, wide-apart eyes, uplifted nose, blue eye, blonde hair — and the way they presented themselves that lent themselves to this. It was easy to find out this kind of thing and much about both their careers and Carrie Fisher’s writing over the next few days. No less than 5 articles in the Washington Post appeared the day after her death, one of them on the front page and continuing in the front section. There was an obituary in the New York Times.

But the way my younger daughter talked of her, I began to realize she was famous for her writing and what I’ll call her “solo performances” on select stages beyond her roles in the original two Star Wars films (1970s), it sequel (1983) and (very recently, much older) its prequel (2015). These made her, like her mother, before her an icon for a version of America’s sweetheart. After this she became a screenplay writer, wrote fictional versions of her life and relationship with her mother, most notably Postcards from the Edge, made into a film (which won awards that year) with Meryl Streep as Carrie, and Shirley MacLaine as Debbie: how’s that for four icons all at once? But important as these were, partly because she was so candid about her private life (sex and marriage), her depression and drug problems, perhaps the solo performances were the most striking reason for her following.

In the several histories of actresses and the rise of respectability of actresses (see my blog review of Sandra Richards’ The Rise of the English Actress), I concluded that central to the growth of respectability for actresses was the actress-autobiography (a sub-genre of autobiography one might say). The writing legitimized her, she was seen as a serious person; the earliest ones were in the 19th century, but some of these were also by women who also got up on the stage alone and did monologue, solo performances. Why is this important: in these they regularly broke out of the conventional roles they were pushed into in films and stage plays. We are familiar with this under cover of the stand-up comic: Joan Rivers did it with pizzazz, and electrified audiences by breaking tabooes in her talk about sex.

What Carrie (using just her first name as so many do) did was to tie these monologues openly to her life, and include in the monologue people she worked in the industry with (say George Lukacs, the first director of Star Wars). She’d do it unexpectedly and at awards ceremony where the person named and at moments bitterly satirized would be sitting. I noticed she’d quickly turn the talk into more compliment, and by the end seem to buy back into the values of the crowd, but everyone had heard the mordant take on the realities of the movie industry and women’s lives. Married briefly to the thoughtful song-writer and good musician, Paul Simon, with other disappointed love affairs (known) with a daughter too, Billie Lourd (a minor actress), Carrie evolved a character in public, much of it frankly her which girls in the later 20th century could identify with and find solace. She capped it off (so to speak) by dying relatively young.


Carrie at American Film Institute

I’m writing because I don’t see her “act” talked about in this way: we are told her quips (good one-liners) and ceaselessly it’s repeated how she openly talked of her “drug problem” and “bi-polar” (a cant word nowadays) state. It is still daring to present your sex life as she did openly (see my blog-review of Kristin Pullen’s Actresses and Whores.) She is presented as a Dorothy Parker manque: but Parker never acted, did monologues on stage, and her writing was much much stronger, far more consistent, genuinely reaching tragedy (the story, “Big Blonde”), and she was brilliant in verse. This is not to knock Carrie Fisher but say she broke out of stereotypes and was able to talk about what it is to be woman as an “actress” in front of audiences. As far as I can her other two novels were much weaker and her autobiographical books (3 of them) weaker yet: they are put-together anecdotes meant to make money and promote herself to get more opportunities for stage solos and participation in movies. She had a TV show, was in dozens of movies, three worth mentioning as serious (where real acting was called for).

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Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — many years ago, when Carrie was still singing as part of her mother’s nightclub act

Carrie also from a very young age, worked with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, on stage. The mother was grooming her to become a singer and nightclub entertainer. In the film, Bright Lights (see right below), we hear Carrie sing twice and she’s very good — a hard yet mellow resonant register like Judy Garland’s. In the film too, one of Reynolds’s rare remarks about herself and her daughter is repeated twice: she is deeply disappointed Carrie did not go in for a career as a singer; Reynolds attributes this to the source (as Reynolds sees this) of her talent, her relationship with her father, Eddie Fisher.

Which brings me to the crucial background out of which Carrie’s career, character, personal fulfilment and crises came: Debbie is not so much Princess Leia’s mother as Carrie is the daughter of the woman Eddie Fisher deserted for that vamp, Elizabeth Taylor. Anyone alive in the later 1950s and 60s who doesn’t remember the extraordinary publicity Reynolds manipulated on her own behalf to make herself the ultimate victim probably never read a newspaper or watched the news or went to a movie. I admit there too I had a lot to learn over the past couple of days. As I thought the extent of Carrie Fisher’s significance was as this skewed icon — America’s sweetheart no longer the girl next door, but first some bizarre fantastic innocent girl who is made the victim of a sadist — remember the metallic outfit and a chain around her neck, and then a general. (To this in our fascist militarized culture are actresses reduced who want to be seen as strong miscalled feminism sometimes: they need to be as violent as American macho heroes at vital moments. Princess Leia strangles the fat [naturally] monster who is imprisoning her with the very chain holding her down.)

So I thought Debbie Reynolds had made a career out of enacting unexamined American ideals: the unsinkable Molly Brown. She was the all-American mother and wife in the honeymoon-like Bundle of Joy. After Fisher left her, she had married twice badly (I had read somewhere), both times seeking glamorous men with money, and both times the relationship ended badly. The second husband, millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, turned out to be an addictive gambler, who lied to and bankrupted Reynolds. The third a very wealthy real estate developer. From what is said in newspapers I had the impression of someone ambitious, determined, and capable: she re-made herself each time through working in nightclubs and more popular movies. Like Ginger Rogers, she was hired for her looks, not her skill as a dancer, and like Rogers, Reynolds made herself superb. For “Good morning” she is said to have endured bleeding feet (recalling Hans Christian Anderson’s poor mermaid). She sang songs one of which became as great a hit as any of Eddie Fisher’s: Tammy from Tammy and the Bachelor.

But as with her daughter, the popular perception of her is inadequate: though not as badly. She had a career on the stage (won a Tony), could really act, especially in comedies (she’d win Emmys for TV shows) and developed her own act and material. She too did solo performances, but here the resemblance ends. She stayed doll-like all her life, at the edges of her monologues making fun lightly here and there of American values, and in her later years referring to her daughter and herself, but never telling much, much less anything untoward. From what I read it seems that part of the conflicts between mother and daughter were precisely the mother pressuring her to be intensely conventional. She was the kind of actress most familiar since actresses were allowed to be respectable, only instead of enacting on-stage female stereotypes, she kept to them off-stage too. Not that I’d knock this: she was ultimately supremely successful from a financial standpoint, and in the film Bright Lights we can see that both Carrie and Todd are comfortable due to her efforts. Her act has become grotesque at moments, especially when with her body she tries to enact the old coquettery, the kind word is gallant.

Bright Lights, which, while I regret to say is a weak film, can end my portrait of these two apparently admired and well-known actresses because more is revealed there than was intended certainly by Reynolds, and perhaps by Fisher.
There is a good recap of the film by John Boone at Entertainment Tonight. I watched the film on HBO at the appointed time (both rare acts for me: I didn’t even know what channel HBO occupied) fully expecting to weep as I had felt emotional over the imagined relationship of a supportive mother-and-daughter. I also thought the new perspective or new context of their shared death would affect me and the material.

I remained dry-eyed throughout. Like Fisher’s solo performances, finally it was not that deeply revealing of Carrie Fisher, though the suggestions that were made by Carrie about her character and history were frank, believable, had an honesty not common: she was throughout presented as when all is said and done, the obedient daughter, taking every care of her mother, good-hearted, well-meaning, forgiving her bastard of a father at the end (“reaching out” it’s called). No hard truths beyond the citing of her “bipolar” problems — we learned how she has had to lose weight for the coming Star Wars roles. Nor was it admitted that Reynolds preferred to live the naive life, and pretend to not examine anything, unless called upon for some explanation of something really bothering her (like her daughter did not take up the career of a singer).

By contrast Joan Rivers’s bio-pic of herself, A Piece of Work, is multi-faceted, novelistic, and Rivers presented many unpleasant, suposedly unadmirable aspects of herself; she asked interesting questions about values underlying celebrity careers, showed us the cost of ambition itself, which was to end up alone, except for her loving daughter, Melissa Rivers, whose career she fostered. Rivers was glad she had re-vamped herself to display ideals of gorgeousness as long as she could. We also saw her kindness to the vulnerable, unlucky in small ways (she collected street people she knew for Thanksgiving), her real philanthropic activities, and good working relationships with those who helped her keep her career up. Nothing like this is in Bright Lights.

I’ve just cited some of what’s revealed. We also see that in the last couple of years Debbie Reynolds had become senile and very frail. It’s often said how they lived next door to one another for years, in semi-bohemian (but very luxurious) compound in Hollywood. We see Carrie taking her mother food; reminding her to eat; immediate memory loss is bad. Reynolds’s last appearances in nightclubs (where everyone in the audience is very old) required the help of many people (and a scooter); and the picking up of that last award was engineered by both Carrie and her son, Todd. For that last they got her dressed, got her to get into the car, up the stairs, onto the stage. Carrie was next to her mother because she needed to be. Carrie talked of how good a time they had had, but they were hardly there at all; upon receiving the award, the Carrie and her brother drove the mother safely home, and then had dinner, drinks, and good talk (and singing) with a couple of close friends.

So one reason Debbie wanted (as she said in her last words as recorded by her son) to “be with Carrie,” is cagey to the last, she knew without her daughter she could have no independence. The two women film-makers had given no sense of this, of what the woman was under the mask. I envied her the day she died because I too have experienced “broken heart syndrome:” about 5 months after Jim died, the faux heart-attack, but I recovered. I am now weak on the right side. I am not as strong in my need and determination as she. There is a real person beneath that mask — we could have seen it daily in her daughter and her relationship.

carrie_fisher_debbie_reynolds

As Boone says, Eddie Fisher’s is the absent-presence, appearing in clips from his career, one of him interviewed later on TV saying he had not been a father “there” for his children, and one recent film of him near death looking terrible, hardly able to do more than agree with the aging daughter sitting near him and talking and making gestures of love. If both children knew much psychological distress and apparently opted out of full careers (having money enough from their steely finally successful mother), this was not just a function of being the children of an hard-working actress who demanded conformity of herself on stage and probably off. He disappeared, he deserted them and their mother too. It was traumatic. Again we are told Carrie had a voice, could have been a successful, belting out sorrowful songs; Todd sings for couple of minutes, showing he too inherited, in his case the light tenor that underlay Eddie Fisher’s voice. But as if they had been stung by an adder, they turned away — both at times to drugs to get through. His career was not destroyed until after Taylor left him for Richard Burton, another marriage, and his inability to adapt to the somewhat changed mores in the mainstream by the later 1960s. Which Debbie managed, just. He couldn’t act it seems.

The content was mostly the slightest of story-lines: the two women are preparing to go to collect Debbie’s last award; by the end they have achieved this feat, are home again, and Carrie belts out a song, partly to please her mother. Before their death it might have felt celebratory. Now it came across as nostalgia, melancholy. Along this is strung home-movies taken by Todd Fisher or Debbie. Todd, her son by Eddie Fisher, came in about half-way through, and we see his devotion to the mother too, and his candor. He too has had drug problems; he did not have near the career his sister has made; he was frank that the source of his core money is his mother’s legacy. Boone omitted the clips from the movie, Postcards from the Edge, as the relationship of its matter to Carrie and her mother was not gone into. One could see that Carrie Fisher was aware of how she when much younger enacted the worst grotesqueries of the hegemonic male culture as it imprints itself on women and that from around the 1990s she refused to do.

By the time my brief foray into this pair of women was done I was no longer sentimental over them, no more identifying than I did for Joan Rivers. Better than this I saw and see in them the difficulties of being an actress in the 21st century remain similar to those actresses had from the later 17th century. How they survived was similar. Where they suffered — from the relationships with men sexually that on the screen they had to control to draw audiences to them. I would not claim for Carrie Fisher anything like the original work and political vision behind the careers of say Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter, Emma Thompson (to cite familiar names) or the many women from the 19th through 20th century who wrote, worked as soloists, directed. But she belongs to their honorable group.

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Carrie Fisher not far from her Princess Leia role: note how Debbie’s smile never changes

There is lurking in my findings an possible essay on the mother-daughter relationships in acting where both mother and daughter are fellow supportive players. I liked this joke in one of the many articles to have appeared: by Ann Hornaday:

If St Peter is waiting, one can’t hep but imagine him a bit intimidated by Fisher — coolly observing the scene and taking notes for mordant future reference — and Reynolds, adjusting her hair and makeup one last time before wowing him with a showstopper of an opening number.

Ellen

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Carrington when young (photo)

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The river Pang, Tidmarsh

I long for the wings of an owl that I mighty FLY — Carrington,1930, “after a frusrating domestic crisis that kept her from painting” (Hill)

I see my paints and think it is no use to me, for Lytton will not see it now (quoted by Noel Carrington)

Dear friends and readers,

I return to a final two essays in this second series calling attention to women artists after I had gone to one too many exhibits of groups of artists under this or that rubric where there were either none or a token or one or two women, often the same couple of pictures. I managed twelve from the Renaissance into the 21st century for the first series, and Carrington is the eleventh of a second fifteen. I’ve found in this second group many great and beautiful and meaningful pictures and other forms of visual art; but also that even the better known women are hardly famous outside a narrow selection of people or only known for their connection with a man or notorious life event; and their art afterwards underestimated. In many individual or personal fulfillment was thwarted by gender expectations, at least two died young from childbirth. Their self-esteem as artists was battered; nonetheless, they developed female-inflected genres, made art different from that of their male counterparts, and succeeded wonderfully well as artists. Carrington’s life and art fits these patterns.

In Carrington’s case what she is famous for gets in the way of people seeking out and appreciating her art. First, for her devotion to Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and suicide soon after he died because, she asserted, she could not imagine or endure life without him.

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Carrington’s Lytton Strachey (1916) — one of her finest characteristic portraits and one of the finest by anyone of him — it’s a study of sensitive hands, of meditative reading

Then there’s the still widely-assumed belief that she self-flagellatingly destroyed or painted over many of her pictures, and indulged herself in non-save-able non-prestigious immanent arts (on house walls, for signboards, craft-y things, book marks, covers, and illustrations), so that hardly anything truly fine and great and permanent survives. Her intense reluctance (refusal) to have an exhibition of her art reinforces the idea her pictures were not good enough.

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The Mill at Tidmarsh (Lytton and her first home together) — perhaps her most famous masterpiece

That she killed herself is out of doubt, but why is not so sure. Jane Hill’s reprinting of the ceaseless art-making Carrington did around Strachey in the last three chapters (phases) of Carrington’s life (in her The Art of Dora Carrington) to see to his every comfort argues a tender idolization (the above two black swans can be seen as standing in for herself and Strachey), but Carrington’s brother, Noel Carrington, (in his Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Decorations) makes a strong case for understanding that several factors beyond her adjustment to life through Strachey’s kindness and congenial intelligence led to her killing herself: she suffered a lifelong distress from her mother’s rejection of her, naturally vulnerable in relationships, sensitive, of a depressive temperament: she painted to make herself happy and her images show her reaching out for security, tranquility, stability.

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An Artist’s Home and Garden

She did wipe out and destroy many of her works (sometimes because she lacked money for paper, sheer supply problem), but since she seems to have made art as continuously as she breathed, as it were constantly, no task too trivial she produced as large a corpus as many a major artist and a lot survives.

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A giraffe scene Carrington created for the nursery door of Rosamund Lehmann’s children (John Lehmann her brother was a central editor at Hogarth Press — about which see below)

She would not allow exhibitions of her art (we glimpse a complex psychological disability), so her pieces did not begin the trail of circulation and discussion the way most artists become known, and given her inclusion (however marginally) in the elite English art and literary coteries of her era, much went into and remains in private hands. She did use unusual media:

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Harmony: Labador Coast — made from painted tin foil on stained glass

You might say her marvelous letters are used against her as superior to her visual art instead of seen as another manifestation of her strong projection of her vividly perceptive experience of a self-chosen unconventional way of life that allowed her to create visual art continually.

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David Garnett — her portraits done as a matter of course of whoever visits capture inner qualities through color, line, shadow

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The drawings of herself are in the letters

In the last twenty years three excellent ground-breaking books have been written about her: Hill’s, Noel’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s biography, Carrington. These and an exhibition (at last) prompted superb essays, three of which reprint pictures and enter the heart of her vision. Them there is Carrington, the film, based on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay (a kind of outline of Carrington’s life out of Holroyd’s and Gerzina’s book), with its virtuoso actors uncannily capturing the inner life of some of the people around Carrington (Samuel West as Gerald Brenan, Rufus Sewell as Mark Gertler) and inimitably Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as Carrington and Lytton:

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A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

It’s out of these I dared this blog. Genevieve Sanchis Morgan on Carrington’s art as “forms of masquerade” (Mosaic 31:4 [1998]) proves Carrington transferred her private life and most unspoken feelings, her transgressive attitudes (towards marriage, children, social performance as self-promotion, sexuality) into her pictures (landscapes especially and why she did not want to exhibit). She made for public consumption (as it were) the familiar images of herself as a devoted domestic servant and cook,

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Cook and Cat

with her pets,

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At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,

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Her innovative household art was her own real life giant dollhouse to hide in, and keep continually absorbed and busy in her private world shared with Lytton. She defflected her literary ambitions (and some satire) behind playful distractions (trompe d’oeil bookcase with titles that mocked contemporary and her associates’ books as well as Jane Austen), and found desperately needed loving reassurance in sexual partnerships with like-minded people. Gerald Brenan she loved, and returned his visits,going to Spain with Lytton and alone

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She created great pictures there, continually protecting herself through these social performances. These come from her times in Spain:

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A hill town in Andalusia

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A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

Gillian Elinor’s essay on Carrington and Vanessa Bell (1879-1962) in Woman’s Art Journal (2016), as near contemporaries, working aesthetically and developing content in the same kinds of and actual domestic milieus (“Bloomsbury Painters” the title), argues their art is crucially like that of other women (tropes, themes, the relationship of their works to them and their lives)

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Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

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Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

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Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

Jane Marcus (Women’s Review of Books, 12:1 [1994]) pays attention to Carrington’s loaded playful interiors and pictures an crockery as evoking a witty primitivism, working against mainstream (male) art to produce village-English delicate dreams and objects (recalling Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), as in this

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Rouen Ware

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Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art

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Self-portrait (1910)

Her life can be told in terms of phases of her art. The fourth child of a Liverpool merchant who had spent decades in India, to bring back an easy competence, he married a narrow-thinking rigid woman and for Carrington this meant much conflict over the years. She loved her father, was tormented by her mother. There are no portraits of her mother:

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Her father (painted much later)

But her mother was artistic, valued art, and she and her siblings early on were encouraged to use their hands, and Dora (she later insisted on dropping this first name she regarded as too feminine, silly, like Dorcas, an archetypal shepherdess) learned to love to, spend hours drawing.

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Noel her brother — much later

After High School, there was her period at Slade where she made life-long girlfriends, with one of whom, Constance Lane, she completed a cycle of of three large frescos “on the library wall of Brownlow Hall” (Hill 23). She began to paint strongly colorist and cubist-like bucolic landscapes and scenes, won a scholarship, and came under the influence of Roger Fry and Mark Gertler (not just his art but as a sexual partner). Finding she could not live in a repressive Victorian-style home (only visit) and have a career and mature adult life, she moved and tried to support herself in London. This period is filled with marvelous small line portraits, comic cartoons

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Very Stevie Smith like

and the earliest of the bucolic snow and tree landscapes with their high wide great bowl top areas.

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Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

This is the time of her immersion in the Omega Workshops (1914-16): playful woodcut art, and riots of color and decorations of ordinary everyday things, which while they didn’t sell to the larger public, are the foundation for the way Carrington would later cover every inch of Ham Spray, her and Lytton’s second home. She didn’t do well at Lady Ottoline Garsington Manor (“I am out of favor now! completely!”), but met others who (if not as much, like Lytton) were important to her: Augustus John’s household (whom she turned to as easy companions); individual people whose character struck her favorably:

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
E.M. Forster

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations

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Lytton she first met in 1916 at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Asheham House — and to fast forward their Hogarth Press provided another place for her woodcuts small animal drawings, and remunerative work for Ralph Patridge, the first of her lovers whom she married to keep him near Lytton (and please Lytton). By 1917, she and Lytton were making a home for themselves at Tidmarsh, and by 1918 he achieved his first of several commercial successes, Eminent Victorians.

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Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

The story of her life becomes a story with Lytton triangular sexual and working relationships with a series of men, and travel (to the continent, around England) and perpetual art-making (from pictures to bookcases, fake and real). Hampton’s movie dramatizes the pain Carrington knew when she felt she had to force herself to act out different selves, and when she felt Lytton did not reciprocate her loving care, efforts catering to his every whim, only to see him distance himself, become at times remote. At the same time her correspondence with Strachey, and especially over her decision to marry Partridge are among the most genuine openly confiding trusting letters I’ve read. They understood and supported one another in many other areas beyond the reading of books and living the larger routines of life. The pressure from the different worlds Carrington found herself in was also offset by the art-making: she repeatedly creates idyllic peaceful and playful beauty in personally felt landscapes (with funereal images)

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and stuffing and covering every available inch of her literal surroundings, over and over:

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A fireplace tile design

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Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

She made signs; this half of a Circus horses reminds me of Watteau’s famous shop sign of people examining pictures in an art shop:

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This is severe in its way: the horses are still and in a row

In her later years she allowed herself to be used by a rough sportsman type, Beakus Penrose (played by Jeremny Northam in the movie): she did love to sail with him (she writes of her “Shelley craving to sail & leave these quiet rural scenes for Greek islands), as witnessed by her remarkable tinsel on glass picture, the deliberately child-like Bon Voyage (1929):

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She became pregnant by Penrose, a (to her) deeply distressing because repulsive condition (she never adjusted to her female body), and Lytton stepped in to find and pay for an abortion. Her end is well-known: Strachey developed pancreatic cancer, and died, and within three months, despite many friends’ efforts to prevent this, Carrington shot herself through her mouth with a gun on a Friday, March 11, 1932. She meant it.

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Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug (1921) – she painted many flower still lifes

That Carrington’s gender was female played a central role in her difficult life, withdrawals, and long neglect. John Rothstein in the introduction to Noel Carrington’s book says rightly that Carrington’s “remoteness from he impulses which moved” most of her contemporaries (ambition for money, high rank, fame, fashionable luxury, admiration from the admired) set her apart (13). Carrington herself also said of participating in contemporary schools of artists to Gertler over post-impressionism that “this ‘culture’ and group system is partly the reason for the awful paintings produced” (35).

But what her mother couldn’t bear (perhaps where her overt troubled life started) was Carrington was not conventionally beautiful. When Carrington is hiding her pictures, or dressing like a boy, she is hiding her body. Gertler wanted her to give up her painting and devote herself wholly to him as his wife. She resisted this fiercely, but could only find a stable life with the daily rhythms and calm expectations that she needed for creation of her art on Lytton’s income.

In talking of a career, she repeated Frye’s warning early on about how hard it was going to be to practice great art as a woman. How she will be regarded by others. She wrote Gerald Brenan about “how difficult it was to be a ‘female creator'”

the few that did become artists, I think you will admit were never married or had children. Emily Bronte & her sisters, Jane Austen, Sappho. Lady Hester Stanhope. Queen Elizabeth and even lesser people like the French female artists Berthe Morissot [who did have a daughter], Le Brun [ditto], Julie de Lespinasse & Dudeffand [? is this a reference to George Sand whose legal name was Dudevant or Madame du Deffand?] … If when I am 38, I am not an artist, & think it is no good my persevering with my painting, I might have a child …

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Spanish Boy (1924) — in her two portraits of adolescent boys she captures their vulnerability

This is an important statement if we realize that she was also much influenced by painters no one else was, for example (according to Hill), the Renaissance painter, Joachim Patinir:

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The Hermit

Patinir’s Flight from Egypt does recall Carrington’s landscapes:

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Carrington’s candid utterances to Brenan about being a woman (“You know I always hated being a woman” [Elinor 31]) are so sad because she never was not an artist, always alive to the art of others, in groups or as individuals. She did hate being pregnant (and thus perhaps deprived herself of a raison d’etre once Lytton was diagnosed with inoperable cancer). When she painted Lady Strachey (Lytton’s mother) it’s said she caught the inner strong woman, but she also masculinized her, made her monumental in doctor’s robes:

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Of her depiction of a group of young girls marshalled by two female teachers, one a nun on a beach to play (On the Sands at Dawlish Warren), Carrington wrote: it was “a study of the misery of authorized fun” (110). She escaped the world’s invisible prisons but at great cost

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Annie Stiles — her servant whom Carrington depended upon and painted, and drew frequently — she describes herself as with two servants eating or by the fire when Lytton is gone away

Ellen

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