Category Archives: Blogging From A-Z April Challenge

S- Salvador Dali- Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to my latest dead artist. Today, I’ll be writing to creative powerhouse, Salvador Dali (1904 -1989).

Well, not everyone sees him that way. Writing in The Guardian, Australian art critic Robert Hughes, dismissed Dalí’s later works as “kitschy repetition of old motifs or vulgarly pompous piety on a Cinemascope scale.” Moreover, when Dawn Ades of England’s University of Essex, a leading Dalí scholar, began specializing in his work 30 years ago, her colleagues were aghast. “They thought I was wasting my time,” she says. “He had a reputation that was hard to salvage. I have had to work very hard to make it clear how serious he really was.” 1.

“One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.”

-Salvador Dali

To provide a brief biographical sketch, Salvador Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, Catalonia, Spain. When he was 16, he lost his mother to breast cancer, which was according to him: “the greatest blow I had experienced in my life”. In 1922, Dalí moved into the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students’ Residence) in Madrid and studied at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. Dalí already drew attention as an eccentric and dandy. He had long hair and sideburns, coat, stockings, and knee-breeches in the style of English aesthetes of the late 19th century.  In 1924, French writer, Andre Breton, published his Manifesto of Surrealism, which influenced artists and writers alike. In 1926, Dali visited Pablo Picasso in Paris and found inspiration in what the cubists were doing. Picasso had already heard favorable reports about Dalí from Joan Miró, a fellow Catalan who introduced him to many Surrealist friends. As he developed his own style over the next few years, Dalí made a number of works heavily influenced by Picasso and Miró. Consequently, Dali was influenced by Freudian theory and began studying the psychoanalytical concepts of Freud and metaphysical painters like Giorgio Chrico and surrealists like Miro, and using psychoanalytic methods to generate imagery. Indeed, Salvador Dalí frequently described his paintings as “hand painted dream photographs.” In 1929, Dalí collaborated with surrealist film director Luis Buñuel on the short film Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). His main contribution was to help Buñuel write the script for the film. Dalí later claimed to have also played a significant role in the filming of the project, but this is not substantiated by contemporary accounts.] Also, in August 1929, Dalí met his lifelong and primary muse, inspiration, and future wife Gala, born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova. She was a Russian immigrant ten years his senior, who at that time was married to surrealist poet Paul Éluard. In the same year, Dalí had important professional exhibitions and officially joined the Surrealist group in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris. His work had already been heavily influenced by surrealism for two years. The Surrealists hailed what Dalí called his paranoiac-critical method of accessing the subconscious for greater artistic creativity. 2.

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”

Salvador Dali.

However, in the 1930s Dali transformed from a key figure in the Surrealist movement, into its enemy when he was nearly expelled after a “trial” in 1934. His dismissal was due to his apolitical stance, his personal feud with leader Andre Breton, and his public antics. In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War started and Dali and his wife remained in Paris, where he continued evolving his artistic style. He was heavily influenced by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, whom Dali met in 1938. In 1939 Andre Breton definitively expelled Dali from Surrealism.3.

“Progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”

Salvador Dali

In 1980, Dalí was forced to retire from painting due to a motor disorder that caused permanent trembling and weakness in his hands. No longer able to hold a paint brush, he’d lost the ability to express himself the way he knew best. More tragedy struck in 1982, when Dalí’s beloved wife and friend, Gala, died. The two events sent him into a deep depression. He moved to Pubol, in a castle that he had purchased and remodeled for Gala, possibly to hide from the public or, as some speculate, to die. In 1984, Dalí was severely burned in a fire. Due to his injuries, he was confined to wheelchair. Friends, patrons and fellow artists rescued him from the castle and returned him to Figueres, making him comfortable at the Teatro-Museo.

In November 1988, Salvador Dalí entered a hospital in Figueres with a failing heart. After a brief convalescence, he returned to the Teatro-Museo. On January 23, 1989, in the city of his birth, Dalí died of heart failure at the age of 84. His funeral was held at the Teatro-Museo, where he was buried in a crypt.4.

“I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak…”

Andre Breton: The Manifesto of Surrealism 1924.

After dipping only the very tip of my little toe into Salvadore Dali tonight, I’m already overwhelmed by my ignorance. Am feeling quite the simpleton for loving his: The Persistence of Memory simply because of the melting clocks.

I’m an Australian and we get very, very hot Summers here, which do very nasty things to chocolate. Indeed, I’ve even seen candles bend over and do a complete U-turn in the heat. So when I see the melting clocks, I am reminded of chocolate coins melting in the heat.You know where the chocolate coin is housed in thick gold foil. You don’t have to be a child to fall under their spell.

Of course, when it comes to time itself melting away and evaporating completely, I’m no stranger to that either. Indeed, time seems to run out faster than my bank account. I know what it’s like to live on a tidal plain, and have to return home before the tide comes in. Or, to head out in the kayak, before you have to drag the beast home. In other words, you don’t need to remind me that “time and tide wait for no one.”

Of course, there’s that other aspect of time. How long is our personal piece of string and how much time do we have left?

For me, this question isn’t theoretical. Indeed, it’s breathing down my neck all the time. However, I’m now so used to it’s omnipresence, that I ignore it. Carpe Diem seize the day. Well, at least, I try to. That said, The Cough often has other ideas. Indeed, I think that cough thinks it’s Salvadore Dali himself craving attention and believing it’s the Lord of Heaven and Earth. However,  just as Dali’s been cut down to size, I’m determined to deflate The Cough its all its dreams to extend my existence well past its expiry date, even if I have to climb an Everest of hurdles to get there.

The Persistence of Memory

Returning to The Persistence of Memory, he based this seaside landscape on the cliffs in his home region of Catalonia, Spain. The ants and melting clocks are recognizable images that Dalí placed in an unfamiliar context or rendered in an unfamiliar way. The large central creature comprised of a deformed nose and eye was drawn from Dalí’s imagination, although it has frequently been interpreted as a self-portrait. Its long eyelashes seem insect-like; what may or may not be a tongue oozes from its nose like a fat snail from its shell.

Time is the theme here, from the melting watches to the decay implied by the swarming ants. Mastering what he called “the usual paralyzing tricks of eye-fooling,” Dalí painted this work with “the most imperialist fury of precision,” but only, he said, “to systematize confusion and thus to help discredit completely the world of reality.” There is, however, a nod to the real: the distant golden cliffs are those on the coast of Catalonia, Dalí’s home.https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/1168-2

Venus with Drawers.jpg

Salvadore Dali, Venus de Milo With Drawers

Venus With Drawers (1936)

Given that I’ve already touched on the Venus de Milo and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, I thought I should also touch on Salvador Dali’s Venus With Drawers (1936):

Among Salvador Dali’s many memorable works, perhaps none is more deeply embedded in the popular imagination than Venus de Milo with Drawers, a half-size plaster reproduction of the famous marble (130-120 B.C.; Musée de Louvre, Paris), altered with pompom-decorated drawers in the figure’s forehead, breasts, stomach, abdomen, and left knee. The provoking combination of cool painted plaster and silky mink tufts illustrates the Surrealist interest in uniting different elements to spark a new reality. For the Surrealists the best means of provoking this revolution of consciousness was a special kind of sculpture that, as Dali explained in a 1931 essay, was “absolutely useless … and created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way, with maximum tangible reality, ideas and fantasies of a delirious character.” Dali’s article, which drew upon the ideas of Marcel Duchamp‘s Readymades, inaugurated object making as an integral part of Surrealist activity.

Dali was deeply influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, contending “The only difference between immortal Greece and contemporary times is Sigmund Freud, who discovered that the human body, purely platonic in the Greek epoch, is nowadays full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable to open.” The artist was especially interested in Freud’s interpretation of William Jensen’s Gradiva, a 1903 novel about an archaeologist’s obsession with an ancient relief; this curiosity coincided with his first explorations on the theme of cabinets—works such as the intimately scaled Atmospheric Chair (1933), in which a small cabinet seems to give birth to a maelstrom of vaguely human body parts. In other works, like City of Drawers (1936), Dali transformed the cabinet into a female figure, or, as he put it, an “anthropomorphic cabinet.” Venus de Milo with Drawers is the three-dimensional culmination of Dali’s explorations into the deep, psychological mysteries of sexual desire symbolized in the figure of the ancient goddess of love.http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/185184

Dali Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War).jpg

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), c. 1936.

While I was devouring Dali tonight like a voracious glutton, I came across another work which I wanted to add to the mix. That is Dali’s  Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), c. 1936. This anti-war piece was brushed just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The painting depicts a tormented figure tearing itself apart in what Dalí called “a delirium of autostrangulation.5” Australian art critic, Robert Hughes commented:

“Despite all bombast of the later work, Dalí’s greatest and most frightening painting is probably the Soft Construction with Boiled Beans – Premonition of Civil War (1936). With this single painting, Dalí moved into the territory of Goya. This monstrous Titan – its body is part-based on that of stringy Saturn, seen in the act of eating his child, in one of Goya’s Black Paintings in the Prado – is the most powerful image of a country’s anguish and dismemberment to issue from Spain (or anywhere else) since Los Desastres de la Guerra. And every inch of it, from the sinister greenish clouds and electric-blue sky to the gnarled bone and putrescent flesh of the monster, is exquisitely painted. This, not Picasso’s Guernica, is modern art’s strongest testimony on the civil war, and on war in general. Not even the failures of Dalí’s later work can blur that fact.6″

……

When it comes to trying to understand Dali’s works, I am very grateful to art critics like Robert Hughes, who can translate the many mysteries of the visual into something tangible. Of course, we can always have our own interpretations, but quite often a more detailed knowledge of the artist sheds some light. I also think that while many of us love art, we’re more of the dabbling kind and don’t have the time to develop the expertise required to become a walking art encyclopaedia.

That said, even in the brief weeks I’ve been hunkering down, I feel like I’ve devoured the golden calf. I’m just amazed at how much you can learn from your chair at home these days through the Internet. You just have to switch off the TV. Put Facebook on hold and you too could become a genius. There’s nothing stopping you.

Lastly, I should mention that Dali was also a writer and wrote several autobiographies. While I haven’t had a chance to read these, I really liked this little story, which he claimed to write as an 8 year old:

“Una noche a finales de junio, un niño se pasea con su madre. Llueven estrellas fugaces. El niño recoge una y la lleva en las palmas de las manos. Llega a casa, la deposita sobre la mesa y la aprisiona dentro de un vaso puesto al revés. Por la mañana, al levantarse, deja escapar un grito de horror: ¡un gusano, durante la noche, ha roído su estrella!“
(Translation: “A night at the end of June, a child takes a walk with his mother. It’s raining falling stars. The child picks up one and carries it in the palms of his hands. At home he deposits it on the table and locks it in a reversed glass. The next morning, getting up, he lets escape a scream of terror: A worm, during the night, has nibbled his star!“) 7.
So, after that grand introduction, here is my letter to Salvadore Dali…

Letter to Salvadore Dali

Dear Salvadore,

Did your moustache keep growing after you died?

Curiously yours,

Rowena

A Letter From Salvador Dali

 Dear Rowena,

Thank you for your letter. Eileen Agar passed it on. It was rather mean of you to string me along like this, almost to the very end. Of course, you were playing with me because I knew you would write to me.
As for my moustache, I’ve been in discussions with Shakespeare about purchasing the plaque from his grave:
“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
As you may be aware, I was my comfy crypt was opened up recently. Talk about an invasion of privacy and not respecting the eternal sleep of the dead. It’s the thing  nightmares are made of, having your lid opened up like that and the light pouring in. As for being pocked and prodded, the was the last straw. Well, at least no one took my photo. That was the one salvation. I just hope they’re not going to try and clone me…especially with Woolly Mammoth or even the Tasmania Tiger. I know I had some mixed-up crazy images in my paintings, but it’s quite another to do that with my DNA, especially without my consent!
Anyway, you don’t need to take my word for it. They checked out my mo and it’s still in fine form. The rest of me is also is well preserved. Almost good enough to stage a return.
Well on that note, Gala and I are off for dinner with Eileen Agar. No doubt she’ll be wearing her Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, so I’d better find myself  something unique. Can’t have someone else stealing my limelight!
Yours sincerely,

Salvadore Dali.

………..

Are you doing the A-Z Challenge this year? How are you finding it? Are you keeping up? I fell a day behind due to my trip to Sydney yesterday but managed to catch up and even get a bit ahead today. Can you believe it!!! I know I’ve bitten off way to much with this theme, but it’s coming together well and I’m learning so much. I hope you are too.
Best wishes,

Rowena

 

References

1.https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-surreal-world-of-

2 Wikipaedia – Salvadore Dali

3, http://thedali.org/timeline/

4. https://www.biography.com/people/salvador-dal-40389

5. https://camdencivilrightsproject.com/d76c7649335a276498962a6ad00428a3/

6. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/mar/13/art

7. https://figueras.weebly.com/literary-work.html

Salvador Manifesto of Surrealism 1924.

Dali’s Remains Exhumed for Paternity Test

R- Auguste Rodin- Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge.

Didn’t need to think twice about choosing today’s artist, French Sculptor, August Rodin (1840-1917). Well, I did consider Peter Paul Rubens rather seriously, because I was totally spellbound by his Marie de’ Medici Cycle in the Louvre. The collection has its own room and I remember just sitting in there soaking it all up, suddenly understanding why Australian artists like Norman and Lionel Lindsay opposed the coming of Modernist art to Australia. These paintings had such a serene beauty.
However, during my time in Paris I must’ve been immersed in so much art, although I was oblivious at the time…the Louvre, Musee d”Orsay and the Musee Rodin. I experienced an incomprehensible art explosion right inside my head.  However, this was just what it meant to be in Paris, and I was there for six weeks in 1992. Rather than the “City of Lights”, they could well rebadge Paris as “the City of Art Galleries”.
It was during this time, that I visited the Musee Rodin. We were staying at the Hotel Henri IV on the Isle de Paris which used to house Henri IV’s printing presses. The tarif included a continental breakfast, which was served in a breakfast room downstairs. This is where we met a couple of Americans. One of them had lived in Paris and became our tour guide, taking us to the Musee Rodin, which knocked my socks off.
It was there that I met The Thinker, whose previous title had actually been: The Poet. In case I haven’t mentioned this before, I was very much a poet back in my university days and that was even my way of communicating with my family and friends…”I’ve got a poem,” my Dad announced in his speech at my 21st birthday. Indeed, while I was in Paris I did a solo reading at the famous Shakespeare Bookshop from my self-published anthology: Locked Inside an Inner Labyrinth.
The Kiss Musee Rodin

Auguste Rodin: The Kiss, Musee Rodin, Paris.

Being 22 years old and in the throws of romantic angst, seeing The Kiss was equally electric and it was like a lightening bolt had struck me on the head switching all my neurones on at once…BANG. Fireworks! Being a passionate Keats’ fan, his Ode to A Grecian Urn came to mind, although Rodin’s lovers were froze in an eternal embrace, rather than the frustration of the eternal chase.
Rodin The Walking Man (1877-78)
Before moving on to the inspiration behind these works, I’d also like to touch on The Walking Man…an incomplete state with its head missing. For some strange reason, I find myself mysteriously drawn towards it. There’s also The Cathedral where two right hands of separate people come together. Yet, there is a space between them, which Rodin describes. Parallels may be drawn between the mysterious inner space that seems to emanate from the composition and Gothic architecture. Emptiness was a factor that Rodin used to allow for, and, as Rilke pointed out, “the role of air had always been extremely important” for him (Rilke, 1928). 1.
The Cathedral

Auguste Rodin, The Cathedral, Musee Rodin.

It took me many years to appreciate that space could well be equally important as content. Indeed, I had that epiphany when I was in my son’s classroom when I was helping the littlies learn how to write. Most wanted to run all their words together and there was that constant reminder to “leave a finger pace”, which for those young beginners, actually meant putting their index finger down on the page in between the words. It was also a very visual representation of the space, the rest, we need in our daily lives to stay healthy and sane. That even the most active thinkers, need to let the cogs rest and nod off. Sleep isn’t a waste of time.
Both The Thinker and The Kiss were part of a larger work The Gates of Hell, which Rodin was commissioned to create a portal for Paris’ planned Museum of Decorative Arts in 1880. The museum was never built. However, Rodin worked throughout his life on a monumental sculptural group depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno in high relief. Often lacking a clear conception of his major works, Rodin compensated with hard work and a striving for perfection. 1.
Edvard Munch Le Penseur de Rodin

Edvard Munch, Le Penseur de Rodin dans le parc du Docteur Linde à Lübeck, 1907, [P.7612]

Revisiting The Thinker now, I’m struck by his physical fitness. The veins are literally popping out of his calves and he is buff. He’s quite literally a muscular man of action, a verb, not some weedy nerd too weak to grip hold of his pen. He wasn’t a procrastinator either. Rather, his thoughts were a precursor to action…a combination of the intellect and the physical, which can so often be mutually exclusive. He was the full package.
Meanwhile, in 1887, Rodin produced The Kiss, a marble sculpture

originally representing Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Slain by Francesca’s husband who surprised them while exchanging their first kiss, the two lovers were condemned to wander eternally through Hell. This group, designed in the early stages of the elaboration of The Gates, was given a prominent position on the lower left door, opposite Ugolino, until 1886, when Rodin decided that this depiction of happiness and sensuality was incongruous with the theme of his vast project. He therefore transformed the group into an independent work and exhibited it in 1887, when the public called it The Kiss. The French state commissioned an enlarged version in marble, which Rodin took nearly ten years to deliver. Not until 1898 did he agree to exhibit what he called his “huge knick-knack” as a companion piece to his audacious Balzac , as if The Kiss would make it easier for the public to accept his portrait of the writer 3.

Before I launch into my letter to Rodin, I wanted to touch on his friendship with the German poet Maria Rilke. Indeed, I wrote to Rilke two years ago in my first series: Writing Letters to Dead Poets. I was stoked to stumble across his Letters to A Young Poet. Indeed, I feel rather ripped off that I didn’t hear about it til I was a middle-aged poet in my 40s. Why didn’t I hear about it at school, or even university? They were too busy teaching the likes of algebra, which are of no use to a poet.
Here’s a poem Rilke wrote about Rodin’s Archaic Torso of Apollo:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 18751926


After covering so much ground, midnight will soon be upon me and another day and another artist will be dawning, before my letter to Rodin is even done.
Dear Rodin,
How I wish I could spend even just one day in Paris with you. That said, I don’t even know where I’d start but a cafe au lait and a croissant at Les Deux Maggots would be a great start. There’s something about having a coffee in Paris which truly stimulates and captivates the brain cells.I would love to photograph your hands holding a simple, everyday coffee cup like any other ordinary man. Yes, these very same hands which miraculously created, or is that captured, the very essence of what it means to be human. You have understood us to the marrow. How did you do it? Most of humanity even struggles to make a paper plane that can fly.
How can you stare into a person’s soul and not burn up like a moth into the proverbial candle flame? Too many creatives, see and feel too much and combust, just like Picasso’s dear friend.
I also thought we might go for a walk through Père Lachaise Cemetery. No doubt many of your friends are buried there and we could go and visit Jimmy Morrison’s grave like nearly everybody else who goes to Paris these days of a certain age. I’d also like to go back to the Shakespeare Bookshop, although I’m far from prepared for a reading. However, I would like to tell them abut when I was there last and even give them the photos. I am quite proud to be a part of their history, even if I didn’t even rate a footnote in the book. Then, perhaps we could eat baguette and fromage beside the River Seine. I really have simple tastes but if you’d rather swing from the chandelier and live the high life, I’m more than happy to join you. That said, you’re paying.
Best wishes,
Rowena
PS I thought you might like this portrait of me when I was about 6 months old. I also call it: “The Thinker”
Scan10423

Rowena’s: The Thinker…Clearly a very clever baby and a real philosopher.

Dear Rowena,
Thank you so much for your letter and inspirational photo, which I would turn into a sculpture myself if I was still around. The Baby Thinker has a ring to it.
There was much discussion around the cafe table here about who was going to be next, and I was most surprised and delighted that it was me.  Of course, Renoir thought he was a sure thing. After all, his Bal du moulin de la Galette is hanging on your parents’ wall and much to Nolan’s disgust, could well have displaced his Ned Kelly. With all Renoir’s bravado, Rubens stormed out. He saw you photographing his Self-Portrait at the Museum of NSW only yesterday and was convinced he was the one. So, thank you very much for choosing me. It’s enough to even make The Thinker jump off off his pedestal with an almighty: “Eureka!” You see, although he’s been sitting there brooding on his thoughts all these years, he never was the silent type.
I asked The Thinker what he wanted to say to you, and although I found it rather cryptic, perhaps it will make more sense to you:

“Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about. He’s not interested in how things look different in moonlight.”

Make of that what you will.

Anyway, knowing how much you loved Rilke’s Letters to Young Poets, I thought I’d share my theories with you on what it means to be an artist…

  • “The artist is the confidant of nature, flowers carry on dialogues with him through the graceful bending of their stems and the harmoniously tinted nuances of their blossoms. Every flower has a cordial word which nature directs towards him.”
  • To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.
  • To the artist there is never anything ugly in nature.
  • In short, Beauty is everywhere. It is not that she is lacking to our eye, but our eyes which fail to perceive her. Beauty is character and expression. Well, there is nothing in nature which has more character than the human body. In its strength and its grace it evokes the most varied images. One moment it resembles a flower: the bending torso is the stalk; the breasts, the head, and the splendor of the hair answer to the blossoming of the corolla. The next moment it recalls the pliant creeper, or the proud and upright sapling.
  • Art is contemplation. It is the pleasure of the mind which searches into nature and which there divines the spirit of which nature herself is animated.
  • The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live. Be a man before being an artist!
  • The artist must create a spark before he can make a fire and before art is born, the artist must be ready to be consumed by the fire of his own creation.
  • There are unknown forces in nature; when we give ourselves wholly to her, without reserve, she lends them to us; she shows us these forms, which our watching eyes do not see, which our intelligence does not understand or suspect.
  • The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that.
  • The work of art is already within the block of marble. I just chop off whatever isn’t needed.
  • The artist enriches the soul of humanity. The artist delights people with a thousand different shades of feeling.
  • Love your calling with passion, it is the meaning of your life.

Well, Rowena. That was some coffee. My thinking cap’s almost blown a gasket coming up with all of those gems. I hope you like them. They’re my personal gift to you.

 

Yours in friendship,

Rodin.

PS Did you know that the first version of The Thinker is actually in Australia? Sorry, it’s not in your Art Gallery of NSW, but it is in Art Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. I know you’ve spent more time in Paris, than in Melbourne, but it’s worth the trip and you should also keep your eyes open for all the other genius works of art that are in Australia. You often just need to look under your nose and don’t need to wait until you can afford the big trip.

References & Further Reading

1)Rodin- The Cathedral

2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auguste_Rodin

3) http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/collections/sculptures/kiss

Q- Queenie McKenzie – Letters to Dead Artists, A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to the latest installment in my series of Letters to Dead Artists. Today, I’ll be writing to Australian Aboriginal artist, Queenie McKenzie (circa 1915-1998) from Warnum in the Kimberly region of Western Australia, where there is a thriving Aboriginal Arts Centre.

 

Kimberley Map

Map of  Australia Showing the Kimberleys: By User:Brisbane, User:Martyman –

Queenie McKenzie was one of the most prominent painters of the Warmun (Turkey Creek) community, and was born at Texas Downs Station on the Ord River. The daughter of an Aboriginal woman and a gardiya (white-fella) father, in her youth McKenzie was at the centre of a series of tense encounters between her mother and local government authorities, who sought to take her from her family, in line with assimilation policies of the time. On each occasion, McKenzie’s mother strongly resisted, even rubbing charcoal on the young girl in an attempt to conceal her lighter skin. As a young woman, McKenzie worked as a goatherd and later as a cook in the cattle mustering camps of Texas Downs. In her later years she moved to Warmun, where she became one of the most senior figures in Gija women’s law and ceremony. After witnessing the success of the male Warmun artists, and with the encouragement of Rover Thomas, in 1987 McKenzie was the first woman to begin painting in her community.

In little more than a decade of active painting, Queenie McKenzie emerged as a prominent and compelling commentator on the Aboriginal experience. Participating in numerous solo and group exhibitions, she created works that range in scope from the creation of the world, through the violent encounters of the colonial era, to the present day. Many of McKenzie’s paintings are autobiographical: depicting episodes from her life with her own people and with gardiya, on the remote cattle stations of the East Kimberley. McKenzie created a remarkable visual history of a life spent in two worlds: the sacred landscape of the Ngarrangkarni, and her working life on Texas Downs Station 1.

“Every rock, every hill, every water, I know that place backwards and forwards, up and down, inside out. It’s my country and I got names for every place.”

-Queenie McKenzie

Her painting followed Rover Thomas’ style, mapping country in natural ochers, blending landscape with witnessed or remembered events, family anecdotes and mythological information. Her landscapes are very distinctive, particularly her rendition of the Kimberleys. She used dots to delineate her simple forms, not as a form of intuitive primitivism, but as a link to the traditional work of the Turkey Creek movement. She became an active printmaker after producing her first prints in 1995 in collaboration with printmaker Theo Tremblay. Her work has been widely exhibited since 1991. It was included in the exhibitions ‘Power of the Land, Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art’ at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1992, and she also had a solo exhibition in Melbourne in 1997. 2.

 

I wanted to incorporate an Aboriginal artist in this series, because Australians owe such much to the rich, Aboriginal heritage we have inherited as the Australian nation. I’m not sure that “inherited” is quite the world. Indeed, I’m struggling to find the right words for any of this and feel quite intimated as a white woman discussing the works of an Aborigingal woman. I shouldn’t because I should just be able to discuss the works of any artist and how they have impacted on me without judgement. Sure, people might say I’ve omitted some of the facts, or got my facts wrong, but you can’t stop anyone from looking at a painting and having an emotional response.

However, when it came to approaching Queenie McKenzie’s work, I had two hands tied behind my back and couldn’t get close enough to form my own assessment. I was shut out.

Image not available

When I visited the Art Gallery of NSW’s website to see her works, this was all I found.

Jesus-Over-Texas1

Queenie McKenzie: Jesus Over Texas, (Western Australia).

When I was able to find some of her works online, I couldn’t understand what I saw. You see, despite being a middle-aged Australian, I virtually have no understanding of Aboriginal art. This is hardly surprising because we didn’t learn anything about Aboriginal culture at school, although Aboriginal dancers did come to our school when I was about seven years old. That was it. By the time I was at university, Aboriginal History was an option, although I pursued Australian Women’s History instead. My uncle is an Aboriginal man and my aunt has written the national history of the stolen generation so I’ve had more exposure to Aboriginal culture than most Australians of my generation. Fortunately, my kids have been more fortunate and Aboriginal culture and history is much more part of the curriculum now, than it used to be.

God sending the Holy Spirit Queenie McKenzie

Queenie McKenzie: God Sending the Holy Spirit

So, I pretty much have to approach Aboriginal Art the same way I would a very abstract piece with no overt meaning. That’s a real headache for me. I feel I should be seeing something that I can see, and it’s very intimidating, even humiliating. It doesn’t encourage me to spend more time there, get to know it better, unless there are more obvious features like the use of animal totems like the kangaroo, dolphin etc. This is possibly because I have a real respect for this culture, as I do for every culture, and I don’t want to get it wrong. It’s a bit like not talking to a friend who is dying or has been diagnosed with cancer, because you don’t know what to say.

Of course, I could find out more about Aboriginal Art and by this I mean the real traditional Aboriginal art. Indeed, to this end, I actually tried to find Queenie McKenzie’s works at the Art Gallery of NSW yesterday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. I had intended to spent the afternoon there. However, I ended up having lunch with my mother and daughter at Barangaroo on Sydney Harbour, which only left me a few hours. Once I arrived at the gallery, I must admit I became rather distracted by both old friends and new. I also did a fleeting run through The Lady & the Unicorn Exhibition.

However, I did come across works by Munggurrawuy Yunapingu (1907-79).

DSC_9555

Munggurrawuy Yunapingu (1907-79): Lany’tjung-Barama & Gulparemun (c1960) Art Gallery of NSW.

However, perseverance and persistence paid off and I managed to find this online:

Queen of the Desert - Australian War Memorial AWM2017_665_1--1-.JPG

The Horso Creek Massacre has been described as one of the most horrific and defining events in Aboriginal/White relations in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The story of how a group of Gija people were shot and killed by white men for driving off bullocks has been passed down through the generations by word of mouth and Queenie learned of the story from her grandfather, Paddy Rattigan. Paddy’s father had killed a bullock and the white men were brutal in seeking their retribution. One old woman, not understanding what they were, is said to have given the men a bullet she found, which they then shot her with. The victims’ bodies were later burnt to hide the evidence. One boy managed to escape by hiding in the dead body of the animal and was later found by his mother. He was the sole survivor of the massacre 3.

When I was a kid, we learned nothing at all about such massacres. We were taught that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770. The trouble was that Australia was never lost, at least not to its own people and surrounding regions. It had its own people with their own history, culture and laws which was all written off when the country was described as “Terra nullus” and was in effect seen as a blank slate. A blank piece of white paper where the English could write their own story and do whatever they wanted…and they did. When the First Fleet arrived on January 26th, 1788 they began what is now considered an “invasion”. That is what’s now being taught in our schools. That is what my children are learning and I am also being educated along the way.

Anyway, unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment to really do Queenie McKenzie or her people justice. So, now I’ll get moving a write my letter to Queenie McKenzie.

A Letter to Queen McKenzie

Dear Queenie

My name’s Rowena and I live way over the other side of Australia on the New South Central Coast, just North of Sydney. It’s such a long way from Warmun and your way of life…your art. I know the sea, and although I’ve been across the Nullarbor several times travelling between Sydney and Perth, I know nothing about the desert and its way. However, perhaps being aware of this ignorance and reaching out across the geographical and experiential gap, is the beginning of something new. We’ll have to wait and see.

I guess that’s what they call reconciliation, but it seems like such a big word for just getting on with the job. Why is acceptance and mutual respect such a big deal? Isn’t that just how you’re meant to treat people…the Golden Rule?

As a person living with a disability, I have seen that you can’t take these values for granted. That even when a parking spot is designated for disabled people, they’ll still think it’s their ordained right to park there. Or’ they expect people with disabilities to fly to gain access to a building, because they can’t make it up the stairs. We live in a world with warped values. What more can I say?

Anyway, I’m making a commitment to come back for a longer visit after this A-Z Challenge is over. I certainly couldn’t hope to get to know you in only one day.

Best wishes,

Rowena

A Letter From Queenie McKenzie

Dear Rowena,

Thank you very much for your letter and your efforts to try to understand my people, my country, our history and our art.

While much is said about getting to know someone by climbing into their skin or walking in their shoes, this is not so easy. You can not be me. I can not be you. I am a Gija woman.  I spent my entire life in the Kimberleys, a place you have never been, and I have never walked along your beach. Yet, for me, it all boils down to how you treat somebody. When you take the time to listen to someone’s stories and show respect for their ways, that is what matters.

Family is very important to me and love. When the Police were coming around and stealing our children, my mother painted me with charcoal so they wouldn’t take me away. Don’t ever take your family for granted and defend your people to the death, if that’s what it takes. Nothing is more important than your people.

Finally, what’s all this business of technology and screens. I knew my country like the back of my hands.

These children don’t even know their hands, let alone what’s going on around them. They need to wake up and get back down to earth. Feel the earth under foot at at the heart of their being for now they are floating like kites who have broken free from the earth and have no home. They have not only lost any sense of community. They have also lost themselves.

Best wishes,

Queenie.

References

1.Art Gallery of NSW- Queenie McKenzie

Map: Derivative of File:Northern Territory locator-MJC.png based on File:Kimberley_region_of_western_australia.JPG and File:Regions_of_western_australia_nine_plus_perth.png., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14102655

https://www.facebook.com/warmunartcentre/

2. https://www.portrait.gov.au/people/queenie-mckenzie-nakara-1930

3. https://www.awm.gov.au/index.php/articles/blog/queen-of-the-desert

 

 

 

P- Pablo Picasso: Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to my A-Z Challenge Series: Letters to Dead Artists. With my most sincere apologies to Australian artists Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor, I’ll be writing to Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, largely due to his work towards world peace, something we should never give up on.

If you are more familiar with Picasso’s cubist works, you might not have made the connection with how he used his art to promote peace and deplore war. In 1937, incensed by the inhumane German bombings on Guerica during the Spanish Civil War, he painted Guerica, which he displayed at the Paris Exhibition as a political statement. I’m not too proud to admit, I knew nothing about this, but at least I’m always willing to learn.

However, I was familiar with his Dove of Peace, but not the story or image behind it.

Guernica Pablo Picasso

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937.

Even if you are not familiar with Guerica, you’ll probably be familiar with Picasso’s very simple outline of a dove, which is still used today to represent peace. That design grew out  a lithograph of a fan-tailed pigeon (Matisse had given the bird to Picasso), which appeared on the poster for the inaugural World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949. When Picasso’s daughter was born on the eve of the Paris Peace Congress, he poignantly named her Paloma, the Spanish word for dove[1]. In 1950, when Picasso spoke at the Peace Congress in Sheffield, he recalled how his father had taught him to paint doves, and finished with the words: “I stand for life against death; I stand for peace against war”.

Antonio Banderas, who will be playing Picasso in the National Geographic’s upcoming: Genius: Picasso, touched on Picasso’s activism:

“He was not only a man who was very capable painting, drawing the reality, but he put that at the service of the political and social context of his time, a guy who was a visionary and had a long sight for the future and, also, an introspection of himself, a reflection about life itself,” Banderas says. “That was very important.[2]

By the way, Banderas was born and raised in Picasso’s home town of Malaga, and used to walk past his house as a child:

“[It was] a time in Spain in which we didn’t have too many international heroes, so Picasso trespassed that barrier at a time in which we were pretty much isolated by the dictatorship with [General] Francisco Franco in power,” Banderas says.

“So I grew up with the projection of this huge artist who was capable of actually making the people all around the world fall in love with his art, and he was [from] my hometown, and I was able to just see the house where he was born. That was very important for me.”

Once upon a time, I could believe in peace. Peace at any cost. However, now I also understand that sometimes you need to get up and fight and that we as a nation might have to go to war. That we must defend our borders, and the universal principals we hold dear such as freedom, equality and justice. Unfortunately, the nature of modern day terrorism, has muddied the waters. Now, it’s much harder to recognize the enemy. It could be anyone, anywhere at any time. Yet, we still need to be inclusive. Love our neighbour as ourselves, and not let the terrorists win, by having the rest of us lock ourselves up in our self-made prisons. So, while Picasso created that dove of peace over 60 years ago, it still means as much to us now as it did then.

Picasso’s Blue Period 1901-1904

In addition to his peace work, I feel inexorably drawn towards the paintings of his Blue Period, which were heavily influenced by the suicide of his best friend and fellow Spanish artist, Casagemas. The works of this period are characterized by their blue palette, sombre subject matter, and destitute characters. His paintings feature begging mothers and fathers with small children and haggard old men and women with arms outstretched or huddled in despair. Picasso was heavily influenced by the Symbolist movement and a revival in interest in the art of 16th-century Spanish artist El Greco.

The Blue Room 1901

Picasso, The Blue Room.

Casagemas (1880-1901), the son of the American consul general in Barcelona, was a painter and poet, and accompanied Picasso to Paris to visit the World’s Fair in autumn 1900. There, he fell in love with Laure Gargallo, known as Germaine, who ultimately spurned his affections. In despair, Casagemas committed suicide, shooting himself at the Hippodrome Restaurant in Paris on February 17, 1901, after first attempting to kill Germaine. Picasso was in Barcelona at that time, but was deeply affected by the news, as anybody who loses a friend to suicide always is. However, two things I find quite intriguing here, is that when Picasso returned to Paris in May 1901, he took up residence in Casagemas’s former apartment and also began a liaison with Germaine. I find this very difficult to understand, and to me, it feels like he’s almost trying to step inside his dead friend’s skin. However, it also could have been, that the apartment was offered to him rent-free and it was more of a practical decision. Personally, I would’ve found it emotionally impossible to live in the home of a dead friend, and could well have left Paris entirely.

Old_guitarist_chicago

Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, Art Gallery of Chicago.

Anyway, my favourite from his blue period is The Old Guitarist, where the blind musician bends over his guitar in an attitude of exhaustion and hopelessness. Like the figures of El Greco’s paintings, the guitarist’s features are attenuated and angular.[3]” It reminds me of a poet I met in Paris whose lover had thrown his guitar into the River Seine in a jealous rage. I can’t even remember his name anymore, but he was from Brooklyn and I met him at the Shakespeare Bookshop, when I was preparing for my reading. Things clearly weren’t going well for him, as he gave me a swag of his poems, the way one does when you don’t need them anymore. Anyway, clearly ours was a very short story. Not even a Haiku.

picasso-annotated-poem

Picasso The Poet

Finally, I wanted to share with you a bit of Picasso’s poetry. This has been yet another one of my discoveries during this series, and I really am starting to feel like I knew nothing at all about these artists before I embarked upon this journey. In the case of Picasso, I wasn’t too keen on his later cubist works, but really empathized with his blue period and Dove of Peace. So, I guess that encourages me to look beyond those few iconic works the world portrays as “THE Artist” and see what else you can find. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time for that, but possibly through seeing more exhibitions and watching documentaries, we might be able to find our own view of an artist and, which might not be the so-called “greatest”, but become our own. After all, no one dictates which artists or their works we have to like or dislike. That’s our personal choice, but to fully capitalize on that we need to venture further afield away from the headlines and peer beyond the flow.

Anyway, back to Picasso’s poetry. He could very well be writing about my days in Paris when a deep and compassionate friendship became yet another victim of the male-female friendship debacle (which I’ll call the When Harry Met Sally Disease for all of you old enough to have that movie still etched in your heart like me!!) Quite aptly, it is called: Does She Know I Am There? I Doubt. –

You are beauty personified. You are charm solidified.
Without you, darling, it is a moonless night. I shall go to the ends of the world with or without a fight to seek you forever. Does it matter if the infinities crumble?
Does it matter if the worlds tear apart? You are the only one important to me, darling.

My entire being recognises and responds to you. I know it when you are close by. I can almost feel the sense of your cheeks on my lips. Your hair is my forest of ecstacy.

Your heartbeat is the only sound I’d give up everything for, love! Each time our eyes meet, my heart speeds, I only wish our hearts could join too.

Who said jealousy is green? It is fuming red. Each time I see you there, casting an occassional glance at me, my heart pumps sadness into my veins. I regret being unable to talk to you. How should I explain my love to you?

Each day I stand so far, hoping that someday, the distance would become a bond. Your countenance lacerates me. Why am I so heavy? Oh, right! Because. I am carrying someone else inside me, my heart that belongs to you

Perhaps, this is a great juncture to stop writing about the man, and start writing to Picasso instead.

writing in Paris

Writing on the Window Sill at the Hotel Henri IV July, 1992.

A Letter To Picasso

Dear Picasso,

Where were you when I needed you? I’ve only just found your poetry as a mature 40 something mother and wife, when I really could’ve used it when I was in Paris as a heartbroken 23 year old who lived and breathed poetry with every breath.

No one ever warned about the ugly side of Paris. How the “City of Lights” so easily become a sewer of darkness, horror and despair where the menacing gargoyles jump off the roof of Notre Dame and circle overhead. The pain was so excruciating and as a writer, there was only one way to get it out. I abandoned my room in the Henri IV Hotel with its twisting spiral staircase, and set up residence beside the River Seine next to Pont Neuf with my notebook and pen. I was writing, writing, writing raw pain dripping from my pen onto the page, hour after hour, oblivious to all danger and any thought of sleep. Heartbreak can consume your soul, all sense of the wider world and everything you have ever been or worked towards all disappears, and all that matters is their eyes. That love, compassion and connection which goes so much further than a physical connection ever could. I’ve been told: “Ro, you know how to find them!” Well, I also know how to lose them and how much that hurts.

However, that was a long time ago. Indeed, I now look upon that young, naive girl as someone else. For better or worse, I’ve grown so much stronger. Indeed, I’m made of steel. Moreover, like most parents, I carry the world on my shoulders and wouldn’t be the first parent who’s fantasized about a little getaway. Indeed, some days even walking down the end of the street to our local beach seems like trying reach the other side of the world. It doesn’t take much for the To Do List to build four walls around me Lego brick by tiny Lego brick and fence me in.

Anyway, as I’ve already made clear to some other artist in one of these letters, all this is about to change. I’m going to find my feet and start walking. You just ask my physio. She had grand plans. Actually, they’re not all that grand. She only wants me to find 30 minutes three times a week and a ten minute walk on other days. That isn’t much, is it? Especially when all you artists keep telling me that walking kept you sane or at least saner than you might have been.

Anyway, I just wanted to ask you about your thoughts of Paris?

Best wishes,

Rowena

A Letter From Picasso

My Dear Rowena,

I am so sorry to hear that you too experienced that horrible heartache of Paris. As you know, my best friend Carlos, suffered the same fate. I should’ve seen it coming and wasn’t there for him. You know how it is you replay and replay and replay something in your mind and try to change what happened, but it’s pointless. You can only change things moving forward, not going backwards. That is one of life’s hardest lessons, my friend.

There’s not much I can tell you about Paris, except that it became my home.

Next time you’re there, might I suggest take The Travel Guide to Picasso’s Paris . Then you’ll know me a little better.

By the way, I have been reading some of your blog posts and you have such a heart to help ease even the suffering of people you’ve never met. Never give up and keep carrying that dove of peace in your heart. You might not be able to change the world, but one by one the numbers add up.

By the way, I’ve also heard you keep all the paintings from your rainbow period shut away in a portfolio behind your closet. That should be a crime. How could you hide your art away? I want to see it framed and signed before the end of this series or I’ll set the gargoyles loose. Trust me, they know how to find you.

Best wishes,

Picasso.

References

[1] http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-liverpool/exhibition/picasso-peace-and-freedom/picasso-peace-and-freedom-explore-2

[2] https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/get-it-right-or-never-go-home-antonio-banderas-reveals-his-fear-of-picasso-20180413-h0yq1v.html

[3] http://www.artic.edu/collections/conservation/revealing-picasso-conservation-project/pablo-picasso-and-blue-period

 

O- Georgia O’Keeffe: Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge

“I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.”
Georgia O’Keeffe in Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1981

As you may be aware, I am currently taking part in the Blogging A-Z April Challenge, and my theme this year is: Writing Letters to Dead Artists. The overall concept is to explore the artists who have touched me through a particular work and then pose them a question. They then send me a reply, and even I’ve been surprised by what they’ve come back with, because much of it has been news to me. So, you can make of that what you will.

Today, I’ll be writing to American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who has taken me beyond the bustling streets of New York and up into its iconic, soaring skyscrapers which she loved to paint from the ground looking up like teeny Jack staring up at the Giant. I have never been to New York, and yet I’ve sung and danced to the song with absolute gusto  to a band called Paris Dumper at The Nag’s Head, an English-style pub in Sydney’s Glebe. It was always their closing song, and an electric end to a great night out.

Please excuse my ignorance, but I only stumbled across Georgia O’Keeffe two weeks ago when I was hastily trying to fill all the letters of the alphabet for this challenge. I feel a little remiss in not getting to know her sooner. However, my justification is that I’m Australian, and art seems to be a bit of a nationalistic thing. We don’t always get exposed to artists from other countries. Moreover, my poor, overstretched brain also has its limits. You can’t know everyone. That said, one of the things I love about writing, is how my limits are continuously stretching and expanding, hungrily devouring fodder like a starving teen fuelling a growth spurt.

Poppy Untitled 1970 oil

Georgia O’Keeffe Untitled 1970 oil.

 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) has been described as “the mother of American modernism”. Yet, within this framework, her subject matter is quite diverse. Indeed, there’s so much more to her, than just her infamous, flower portraits. A few nights ago, I was stoked to stumble across her series of New York Skyscapers 1925-29. These were painted while she and her famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were living in a 30th floor apartment in the Shelton Hotel, one of New York’s first residential skyscrapers. It had a gobsmacking view across the city, and they really were living and breathing the New York vibe. In 1929, O’Keeffe made her first trip to New Mexico, where she made love to the rugged, arid landscape, and it soon became an integral part of herself. After her Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she moved to Abiquiu full-time. She lived there until her final few years, when she moved to Santa Fe where she died on the 6th March, 1986.

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”

-Georgia O’Keeffe

That’s the condensed version. You see, I’m keen to continue on our travels, focusing more upon the road less travelled, than regurgitating biographical facts. Indeed, I’m much more interested in getting to know Georgia O’Keeffe the woman instead. I never expected this to be easy. However, when I scratched the surface, she burst into a thousand pieces, which have been very hard to put into any kind of order or structure to create a cohesive portrait. I shouldn’t be surprised, but it would’ve been much less work and mental angst, if she could’ve stayed between the lines.

No discussion of Georgia O’Keeffe is complete without mentioning her husband…the famous photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, who gave O’Keeffe her big break.

Georgia O'Keeffe New York Night

Georgia O’Keeffe, New York Night 1929. I have always marvelled at this little boxes of light through the darkness, signalling somebody’s home and wondered who is there, what they are doing. each box is like an illuminated mystery.

Stieglitz created and managed New York City’s internationally famous 291 Gallery located at 291 Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. While Stieglitz was at the forefront of photography, he also introduced some of the most avant-garde European artists of the time to the United States. These included:  Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, and the Dadaists Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. This was clearly a man who knew his art. Knew his artists, and was very well connected.

Radiator Building-Night NY 1927

In early 1916, Anita Pollitzer, a friend of O’Keeffe’s, showed Stieglitz a series of her highly innovative charcoal abstractions. He found them to be the “purest, finest, sincerest things that had entered 291 in a long while”. In April 1916, Stieglitz exhibited ten of her drawings at 291 without her knowledge. At his request, she moved to New York in 1918 and their professional relationship soon became personal. She was 28 at the time and he was 52. She also became his photographic muse. In 1924, after he’d divorced his wife, they were married. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were prolific letter writers and exchanged around 25,000 pieces of paper between them…a mind-boggling volume of correspondence, which covered the highs and lows of their relationship.

At this point, perhaps it’s pertinent to mention O’Keeffe’s battles with mental health issues, which were exacerbated by her husband’s affair with Dorothy Norman, who he called ”Dorothy-child.” Yet, despite this apparent confidence, apparently she experienced anxiety all her life. Yet, instead of making it her prison, she went on and did what she wanted to do regardless.

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Indeed, I wonder whether she might’ve known Dorothy Parker’s poem: Resume written in 1928:

 

Razors pain you;

Rivers are damp;

Acids stain you;

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;

Nooses give;

Gas smells awful;

You might as well live.

I tend to feel this earlier O’Keeffe is almost a complete contrast to the fiercely independent, tenacious woman she became in later life, even before her husband’s death. Indeed, I can almost hear her singing from her grave: I Did It My Way.

georgia-okeeffe with her car

This freedom could best be symbolized by her car, which she adapted into a mobile studio and was a critical necessity for her trips to and from New Mexico. As Carolyn Kastner, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum explained:

“She would remove the driver’s seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger seat, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford.[1]

After all, the heat in New Mexico was intense and she’d paint with the windows down, until the bees became a nuisance and she’d wind them up until the heat became too much and she headed home.

Georgia O'Keeffe Painting in her car at Ghost Ranch New Mexico

Georgia O’Keeffe painting in her car studio at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.

 

As much as I don’t really like driving, it does provide that sense of freedom, which can really only be surpassed by learning to fly. There’s a huge part of me, which would love to jump in the car and escape somewhere and immerse myself in my writing, photography and possibly even paint. Indeed, playing my violin somewhere out in the middle of Australia’s Nullarbor Desert has a strange appeal, although my preferred escape has been driving a Kombi up to Byron Bay and going for a surf. The fact that I can’t surf or drive a Kombi has done nothing to dampen this dream, although now that the kids are getting older and my health isn’t quite so dire, it’s been awhile since I’ve been indulging in some Kombi dreaming.

I’m sure many of us indulge in some form of escapism, and I guess that’s where TV can take you on a thousand journeys without even leaving your chair. That ease of entertainment, I guess is something to watch out for. Living vicariously through a screen is a poor substitute for living and going on real life adventures of your own, instead of living through someone else.

Speaking of living, I’d better get on with this letter to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Envelope to Georgia O'Keeffe

 

A Letter to Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Georgia,

A few short week’s ago, I’d barely heard of you, and yet now I’m in raptures. Not just with your paintings, especially your New York Skyscraper series, but with you as a person who was such a strident individual with your own ideas, and yet there was also your marriage to Alfred, with it’s 2500 pieces of paper, the photographs, his affair and then how he didn’t want to sell your paintings. He wanted to keep them all for himself. I’d also love to pile into your Model T with you and drive from New York to New Mexico. I’ve never ever been to America, but there’s something about America and the big road trip which has a certain magic and reminds me of my many trips across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain on my travels between Sydney and Perth. I’d better warn you though. I hope you like having plenty of stops, because I’ve never been an A-B traveller. I always have to stop.

Well, that assumes that I’d be driving the car, which is probably very doubtful. Something tells me that you wouldn’t hand over the keys to your beloved studio on wheels under any circumstances. That said, I think your eyesight started failing later in life so perhaps I would be driving after all.

While I’m fascinated by your New York Skyscraper Series, I’m actually writing to you about your bone paintings from Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. There you were painting flowers for such a long time, which are such a thing of beauty, and then you turn to bones, which intrinsically have to have some association with death, destruction and despair. There a bit of a gulf between the two, don’t you think?

Please explain.

There’s so much more I coujld ask you, but this might just be the beginning of our own series of 2,500 pieces of paper. You never know. I have a hell of a lot of questions and who knows, perhaps you might just have a few of the answers.

By the way, did you happen to meet up with Australian artist, Sidney Nolan? I wrote to him yesterday. While I focused on his Ned Kelly Series, about an Australian bushranger, he also did a series set in the Australian outback about doomed Australian explorers, Burke and Wills. I think the two of you should go on a long car trip together and see what you can come up with. You might even what to take along his mate, Russell Drysdale and author Patrick White, although the last I heard Nolan and White had a falling out. However, one hopes those petty earthly squabbles would all get ironed out somewhere along the between heaven and Earth.

Bets wishes,

Rowena

A Reply From Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for your energetic letter. I could sense your uncontained enthusism in each and every word and your unstoppable energy reminded me of myself. Indeed, I suspect you also have something of my nervous energy, which was a positive negative force my entire life. It drove me forward. I wouldn’t let it hold me back, but there were those times it overwhelmed me like a wave and swept me under.

Sometimes, I wonder if people don'[t have anything better to do than make up fantastic Freudian interpretations of my paintings, when my thinking was very practical. I painted flowers simply because they were there. They were cheaper than models and they don’t move. Quite frankly, I don’t know how my husband coped handled all those models. Sorry, I wasn’t going to go there. We both know what happened with that wretched Dorothy woman, although more than one of my so-called friends told me I’d got my comeuppance.  You don’t always think of that when you’re a young woman caught up in the throws of passion and you have this incredible, world famous photographer falling at your feet. I was just a girl from a wheat farm in Wisconsin, who was dazzled by the bright lights. That’s all.

Anyway, getting back to my paintings of the animal bones, it was the same as the flowers. The bones were scattered across the landscape and I gathered up a barrel of bones and took them home. This was around the time that they were hell bent on finding the greatest American novel, the greatest American play. Indeed, Superman was created in 1938. America was looking for heroes. This was my cheeky contribution to the quest. You’ll notice the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in the painting.

You see, abstract works aren’t always so cryptic as you might think, and I encourage you to release your inhibitions and preconceived ideas and explore more abstract works for yourself. Find your own meaning, if you must. Or, simply enjoy them for what they are.

By the way, I heard you gave up on art growing up because you couldn’t draw your dog. What a pity. No one should ever give up painting and drawing and expressing their inner world through art. It’s just like dancing, which I’ve heard you’ve embraced now that you’re almost 50 and battling this dermatowhatwhat disease. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but why do they give these rare diseases such long unpronouncible names? Humph…dermatowhat what…ther’s subject for an abstract work. HOw would you paint it?

See, I got you back with a tough question of my own!

Best wishes,

Georgia.

PS Rowena, you don’t need a Kombi to go off the grid and you don’t need to drive to the end of the Earth either. You live in such an inspirational part of the world, surrounded by beaches, the ocean but also the bush. Don’t tell me you have nothing to paint!

Sources & Further Reading

[1] https://www.c-span.org/video/?310650-1/life-artwork-georgia-okeeffe

Wikipaedia

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

https://www.biography.com/people/georgia-okeeffe-9427684

http://artreport.com/exploring-mental-health-through-art/

Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition at Tate Modern

A-Z Weekly Round up…Letters to Dead Artists.

Welcome to Sunday, which is a day of rest in A-Z realms. Well, that is, if you’re not like me and somehow managed to mix N up with M and I ended up posting a letter to Sidney Nolan two days early, and to Edvard Munch, a day late. I think this is an alarm bell telling me I’ve taken on too much again this year and that I should heed some of the examples of my artists and not push myself too far. After all, Van Gogh cut off his ear and Munch shot off a finger, and I’m sure these two are just the tip of an expansive iceberg of troubled artists.
Thank fully, I have nothing to worry about. I’m a writer, not an artist.

Here’s a link to last week’s letters:

H- Hans Heysen

I- Isabel Bishop

J- Jackson Pollock

K- Wassily Kandinsky

L: Norman Lindsay

M- Edvard Munch

By the way, in case you missed any of the first week’s letters, here they are:

A- Alexandros of Antioch

B- Sandro Botticelli

C- Grace Cossington Smith

D-Edgar Degas

E- Eileen Agar

F- Frederick McCubbin

G- Vincent Van Gogh

Are you taking part in the A-Z Challenge this year? If so, please leave a link in the comments below and good luck. I think we’ve just passed half way, but I had prepared much of these before the challenge started, so I’m really needing to pump up the volume of research and writing, when it feels like I’ve blown up quite a few brain cells in the first two weeks. My kids also start two weeks of school holidays tomorrow. While they’re now 14 and 12 and more independent, I know I won’t be able to lock myself away for the next two weeks. I wouldn’t want to either. So, instead, I’ll be splitting the atom (or should I say myself) for the next two weeks.

I think I’m hearing something about fools step in where angels fear to thread…Rome wasn’t built in a day…and yet we have to try it, have a go, don’t we!!

Best wishes,

Rowena

 

M – Edvard Munch- Letters to Dead Artists…A-Z Challenge.

My profuse apologies to Michelangelo, Monet, Matisse and Miro, who I’ve had to overlook today.

However, Edvard Munch’s The Scream has resonated with me for so long and in such an intimate way, that I could only write to him. For he was there holding me close, when I was stuck inside my constricting  inner labyrinth. To be honest, these storms began as a child, increased during the swirling vortex of pubescence, but blew their banks in my 20s when the pressure inside my head, reached a final climax. Not due to mental illness. Rather, I had undiagnosed hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) and the storm was trying to get out.

Strangely, while I was consumed by this churning vortex of anguish, despair, heartbreak, or pure panic, I found myself curiously carried out of the abyss by the figure in Munch’s The Scream. In hindsight, it was a bit like somebody carrying the crucified body of Christ off the cross and washing my wounds and bringing me back to life. Isn’t it ironic, that a painting which is so graphic in its anguish, can also be soothing.

EXHI001000

I was about 12 years old when I was first introduced to Munch’s The Scream in art class at school. Its impact was immediate. I loved it. This was many years before I knew that this state of extreme stress and panic, was something called anxiety. Or, that I could, at least to some degree, choose how I responded to the things which happened to and around me. That the glass could either be half-full, or half empty. I could focus on what I have and what is working. Or, I could fixate on what was missing or wasn’t working, and fall into an abyss of anxiety, depression and despair. Of course, that’s a simplified way of looking at things.

However, that way of looking at things, later probably saved my life. When I found out I had 60% lung capacity, I could’ve sat in a chair and have everything done for me because I was sick. However, I thought about how singers and brass musicians have increased lung capacity. That gave me the idea that if I worked on the 60%, I did have instead of fixating on the 40% that was missing, , I might just have enough. So, how you respond to a situation can ultimately make a huge difference to you, as all those small steps and little decisions add up.

Anxiety

Edvard Munch: Anxiety.

Like virtually all the artists I have written to thus far, Edvard Munch had his battles, and it is no secret he lived with mental health challenges, most likely bipolar disorder. You immediate see these two extremes of mood when you put The Scream and his mural The Sun side by side:

The diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychosis is based on his own diary descriptions of visual and auditory hallucinations, a multiply documented instance of his travelling throughout Europe manifesting manic disrupted behavior that culminated in his shooting two joints off the ring finger of his left hand, and his psychiatric hospitalization in 1908 for an intensification of auditory hallucinations, depression, and suicidal urges. He also suffered from bouts of alcoholism. However, when you read about his extensive experience of familial death and grief, it also makes me wonder how much they contributed to his heightened state.

Edvard Munch was born on December 12, 1863, in Löten, Norway, the second of five children. In 1864, Munch moved with his family to the city of Oslo, where his mother died in 1868 of tuberculosis, when Munch was only five years old.

“I find it difficult to imagine an afterlife, such as Christians, or at any rate many religious people, conceive it, believing that the conversations with relatives and friends interrupted here on earth will be continued in the hereafter”

Edvard Munch

This marked the beginning of a series of family tragedies, which would’ve given Munch a very intimate experience of deep, prolonged suffering. His sister, Sophie, also died of tuberculosis, in 1877 at the age of 15; another of his sisters spent most of her life institutionalized for mental illness; and his only brother died of pneumonia at age 30. Munch’s father, a Christian fundamentalist, interpreted these tragedies as acts of divine punishment. This powerful matrix of chance, tragic events and their fatalistic interpretation left a lifelong impression on the young artist, and contributed decisively to his eventual preoccupation with themes of anxiety, emotional suffering, and human vulnerability[1].

Moreover, it would be interesting to look at parallels between Munch and author Roald Dahl, who was also Norwegian and experienced similar family losses and developed a dark, almost sinister current through his writing.

The Scream

which scream is best

“Painting picture by picture, I followed the impressions my eye took in at heightened moments. I painted only memories, adding nothing, no details that I did not see. Hence the simplicity of the paintings, their emptiness.”

Edvard Munch

Essentially The Scream is autobiographical, an expressionistic construction based on Munch’s actual experience of a scream piercing through the air while on a walk, after his two companions, seen in the background, had left him. Munch recorded his initial conception in 1891: “I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then, the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My  friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.[2]” (Heller RH: Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York, Viking Press, 1972, p. 109) [3]

There are actually five versions of The Scream. The National Gallery in Oslo, Norway, holds one of two painted versions The Munch Museum holds the other painted version (1910) and a pastel version from 1893. The fourth version (pastel, 1895) was sold for $119,922,600 at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art auction in 1912. Also in 1895, Munch created a lithograph stone of the image, which is my personal preference. It’s so graphic.

In 1978, the Munch scholar Robert Rosenblum suggested that the strange, sexless being in the foreground, was inspired by a Peruvian mummy, which Munch might’ve have seen at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This mummy, which was buried in a fetal position with its hands alongside its face, had struck the imagination of Munch’s friend Paul Gauguin. Indeed, it stood as a model for figures in more than twenty of Gauguin’s paintings, among those the central figure in his painting, Human misery (Grape harvest at Arles) and for the old woman at the left in his painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?.

Letter to Edvard Munch

Dear Edvard,

There’s so much I could ask you, but beyond all else, I wanted to thank you for painting The Scream and giving it to the world as a way for all of us experiencing anguish and suffering, can potentially find release.

Did you find release from your personal inner labyrinth when you passed?

Or, were your own words prophetic:

“To die is as if one’s eyes had been put out and one cannot see anything any more. Perhaps it is like being shut in a cellar. One is abandoned by all. They have slammed the door and are gone. One does not see anything and notices only the damp smell of putrefaction.”

I’d love to hear from you and could you please send me a painting of where you are now.

Best wishes,

Rowena

A Letter from Edvard Munch

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for your letter. My old friend Gauguin is feeling rather left out now that I’ve received a letter as well as Van Gogh. Do you think maybe you could send him a letter anyway, even though it breaks the rules of this challenge? You’re such a compassionate soul and I’m sure you could bend the rules a little and just send him a few lines. I’d be mighty grateful. Even in heaven, he can get a bit moody and he and Vincent had another falling it when he tried to read his letter.

Anyway, you Australians are a positive, upbeat bunch. All that sunshine must do wonders for your outlook. I’ve met one of your former Prime Ministers up here…a Malcolm Fraser. He challenged all my gloomy thinking and said: Life wasn’t meant to be easy, but it can be delightful.”

I’ve attached a print of a mural I did called “The Sun”. That’s a pretty close approximation of what it’s like here. Oh yes! Much to my surprise, I am able to have loads coffee and chats with my loved ones up here. It’s really very social.

Yours,

Edvard Munch.

sun

Edvard Munch, The Sun

References & Further Reading

[1] http://www.theartstory.org/artist-munch-edvard.htm

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-explorations/201503/creativity-and-mental-illness-ii-the-scream

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-explorations/201503/creativity-and-mental-illness-ii-the-scream