Category Archives: Travel

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

 

I Isabel Bishop…Letters to Dead Artists, A-Z Challenge.

Welcome to the Letter I! As you may be aware, my theme for the 2018 Blogging A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with an artist starting with “I”. So, I had to hit the pavement. Go out on the prowl and pick one up. Since no one was throwing a party, I was back to my old friend Google, who never fails to deliver “something”.

Initially, I was going to write to Australian artist,  Jean Isherwood, who painted a series honouring Dorothea McKellar’s iconic poem My Country. However, since most of my readers are from overseas, I decided to look further afield. Finally, I stumbled across American artist, Isabel Bishop, and let’s just say there was a spark across a crowded room…

What initially attracted me to Isabel Bishop’s works, was her paintings of young office women in New York’s Union Square. Although they’re clearly from a different era, they reminded me of myself as a young woman working as a marketing professional in Sydney’s CBD. When I look at her Young Woman 1937, there’s real determination in her eyes. She’s heading somewhere. I also felt myself drawn into Tidying Up and could well imagine myself looking in a mirror and touching up my lipstick on my way to a meeting, or heading out for Friday night drinks. Yes, these people were very familiar.

Isobel Bishop Tidying Up Indianapolis Museum of Art

Isabel Bishop, Tidying Up, Indianapolis Museum of Art Collection

Moreover, I’ve also walked through crowded city streets. Squeezed onto over-crowded trains. While I’ve never been to New York, in so many ways, these scenes are even more familiar to me and my world than scenes of the Australian outback. I know what it is to be caught up in the rush of a thousand feet. Indeed, when I was in Sydney with my daughter the other day, I was taking photos as we walked through Central Station Tunnel. It’s a very long pedestrian tunnel and like Union Square, hosts such a menagerie of life…buskers, beggars, the homeless, vendors selling The Big Issue… There’s also that same sense of movement, which preoccupied her work. It’s a movement which I find a little scary, because it seemingly has a life of its own. You’re being pulled along or sucked through this tunnel, and there’s this suction you can’t escape. That if you fell, which for me is quite a possibility and indeed, I was using my walking stick, I’d be trampled underfoot and  disappear…a modern casualty.

Not that Isobel Bishop, portrays the subway in this way. That’s just the horrors of my own over-anxious, catastrophizing imagination and I won’t even blame the movies.

Anyway, I wasn’t satisfied with a fleeting superficial introduction. I had to delve deeper. Find out what made her tick…and tock. What was she thinking? What was important to her?

I read a few bios, but there were no quotes and no real sense of the woman behind the canvas. Then, I fortunately stumbled across an aural history interview from 1959. Yet, although this interview spanned 25 pages, there was only one anecdote which stood out:

ISABEL BISHOP: Well, for an anecdote — this is a silly thing that happened a long time ago. It hasn’t great significance, but it was rather shocking to me. I had gone to Union Square where I had been for years of making little pen drawings because I found them so refreshing to me, and I was doing this and a drunk who was next to me said something which I didn’t answer. I simply went on drawing, whereupon he got up and collected a mob, and this was a most appalling thing because I had been drawing over there and he went and got this man and others and they surrounded me like this and he said, “What do you mean by drawing my picture?” And I and he pulled my book, and his hostile crowd gathered around me, and he said, “She sells them to ‘Life’ magazine.” And I told them no, and there was no use arguing with them. They really were very hostile. So I tore the page out and gave it to him and rescued the book just simply for the sake of my own sense of things and progressed slowly toward the edge of the park. I posted myself by the side of a bench where a neat-looking man was sitting, and I began sketching again because I felt that this is my square, and if I simply shrivel — I mean I’d be routed and it would be no longer my square. This is an issue of the greatest importance. So I drew again with these people hovering around and saying , . Whereupon this man I was counting on, you know, to stand by me, got up and joined them, and “What does she mean? Let’s run her out of the square. What is she? Is she the capitalist or something equally obnoxious?” So I did leave the square and approached a policeman nearby and said, “These people have prevented me from drawing in the square.” And he said, “Do you have to draw in the square?” And he wouldn’t come back with me or do anything about it. So I felt deeply hurt and, though I still live there, I don’t draw as much in the square for it just simply hurt my feelings.

HENRIETTA MOORE: That’s why you went underground?

ISABEL BISHOP: That’s right. I was driven underground. I find no one watches me at all. I draw down there and nobody notices me. 1″

I’m not sure how much this reveals about Isobel Bishop the person, but it was a good story. It provides something of her, the artist behind, or perhaps I should say, in front of the canvas.

One last thing I wanted to mention, is that Isabel Bishop was married to a neurologist. That was quite a red flag to me. If you’ve been reading through this series or following Beyond the Flow, you might recall that I live with the neurological condition, hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. It was only diagnosed when I was around 27 and despite having an Honours degree from the University of Sydney, my mental capacity plummeted on just about every front…memory, movement, personality the works. The ambitious, career-focused young woman was dead in the water and I never really came back. Sure, I had surgery and they put in a shunt to drain away the fluid and reduce the pressure (my head must’ve been something of a pressure cooker with stew spitting out my ears beforehand.) However, I was different. As soon as I woke up, I knew someone had turned down the volume. I don’t think about this very often. The wound is still so raw, that if I even touched it with my pinky, I’m know there’d be a never-ending scream. Yet, life goes on. I became someone else. Paradoxically, in many ways, I was allowed to become myself. After all,  I really am more of a writer and creative than a business soul. Pursuing that almighty career, had cut me off from all of that.

Anyway, without any further ado, here’s my letter to Isabel Bishop…

Letter to Isabel Bishop

Dear Isabel,

A few nights ago, I stumbled across your work online, and was touched by your portrayals of young office girls and how you brought them to life. Indeed, you took women out of the home and opened their horizons back at time when the world was just opening up.

Thanks to these trailblazers, women like myself could launch themselves into the business world without a second thought. Well, as it turned out, there was a second thought further down the track, as we tried to launch through that invisible glass ceiling. Important principles of gender equality, like Equal Pay are still a dream.

What is wrong with the place? How can what’s between your legs determine your pay packet and your trajectory up the corporate ladder, instead of what’s between your ears and how hard you work? You don’t hear much about this anymore but occasionally the ripples rise up into a wave, and actually make it onto the news.

However, this is not my battle anymore. I’m just trying to make it out the front door. Have a coffee with a friend. Actually, seeing my friends has also become something of a pipe dream. We bump into each other somewhere for a passing chat, but who has time? Who can find a mutually vacant hole in the uber-busy schedule? How I’d love to stand around and chat to my friends like the young women in your paintings, especially without someone telling me to hurry up and putting me down for talking too much. Is it asking too much to borrow ten minutes from “mother time” to be myself?

Humph. I had no idea I was going to share all that with you. It just came out…an impromptu rant. I’m sorry, but I won’t delete it. Cover up my longings like you might paint over a mistake. I wrote it. It’s out. Let those thoughts have their own life, and see what comes back. Not everything is meant to be covered up or painted over.

By the way, I’d love to spend a week sitting with you in Union Square. I’ve never been there, or even to America but I’d love to see it through your eyes and hear more stories. Not just about what it was to paint, but also to be there. Absorb it all like breathing…in through your eyes, and out through your pen and brush. How incredible!

Warm regards,

Rowena

PS Thought you might like to hear this again: Frank Sinatra: New York!

Letter From Isabel Bishop

Dear Rowena,

Each person has their own patch of ground…their own road to walk. Not that I’m suggesting that we’re islands, but you can only ever be yourself. That’s like a symphony with so many different notes and instruments coming together, that often it becomes a cacophony, and not a song. That’s okay. We often make noise, before we find our song.

Don’t be so hard on yourself! It just takes some of us longer than others. You’ve had some pretty monstrous challenges, and yet you minimise how far you’ve come. Try to be the violinist or the dancer who has conquered the odds. Yet your capacity to write and express the challenges of the human soul, didn’t pop out of a box of Cornflakes. You made that happen. No one else.

Just because you haven’t finished that book yet, don’t put yourself down. You’re still finding your words, and getting closer every day. Your time is just around the corner. I can sense it. Indeed, you should go and get one of your notebooks and etch your name on the spine. Feel what it is to have your very own book. Feel it in your gut, your soul, in every part of your being. Only then, will you have enough faith to make it happen.

Good luck.

Best wishes,

Isabel.

PS Stick this photo montage up on your wall. Have faith!

Sources

1 https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-isabel-bishop-12431

http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/bishop-bio.htm

 

G- Vincent Van Gogh…A-Z Challenge.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As you may recall, my theme for the 2018 A-Z Challenge is Writing Letters to Dead Artists. Today, we’re off to catch up with Vincent Van Gogh, the “Painter of Sunflowers”, who is equally well-known for his Starry Night and many other iconic works. I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that Vincent Van Gogh somehow opened Blake’s “doors of perception” and possibly even saw a glimpse of something in between Heaven and Earth. He was indeed a visionary genius.

If you are interested in some musical accompaniment, here’s Don McLean’s Starry Starry Night

It’s no secret that “Vincent The Man” was more beautiful, intricate and complex than any of his paintings. While his self-portraits barely scratch the surface, the inner man is best revealed through his letters to his beloved brother, Theo, an art dealer who financed his entire artistic enterprise. Indeed, these letters are considered masterpieces in their own right.

“But what is to be done? It is unfortunately complicated by lots of things, my pictures are valueless, they cost me, it is true, an extraordinary amount, even in blood and brains at times perhaps. I won’t harp on it, and what am I to say to you about it?[1]

Letter from Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh  Arles, 17 January 1889

Yet, it is also well-known that Vincent Van Gogh had a tortured existence. That, despite the vibrant colours almost glowing in his later works, he experienced extreme hardship, failure and rejection most of his life. Indeed, he only sold one painting in his life time. That’s hard going. So, you could say that all these failures added up and that these, combined with his psychological troubles, caused him to cut off his ear and ultimately commit suicide.

Or, so the story goes…

Meeting Vincent

Trying to remember when I first “discovered” Vincent, is like trying to track down the origins of a dream. There are endless stars and nebulae with no beginning. His paintings expressed an anguish, an inner-chaos which I couldn’t put into words. You see, I spent the first 28 years of my life living with undiagnosed, untreated hydrocephalus, which I jokingly call: “a harbour in my head”. In the year leading up to surgery, I experienced a myriad of bizarre neurological symptoms. So, you could almost say those swirls in Starry Night, had moved inside head. Indeed, my head was like a pressure-cooker about to explode. So, it’s no wonder Vincent made sense and somehow he cast a light out of the darkness. Indeed, it was the light of a thousand stars.

In April 1992, my best friend and I touched down in Amstersdam. I was a 22 year old Australian backpacker, and I’d just finished my university studies. It was an exhilarating time. My cocooned world of intensive study had sprung open, and I’d flown to the other side of the world. You can’t get much more liberated than that, and being in Europe for the very first time, was incredible. It blew me away.

In those early days, we not only visited the Anne Frank House, but we also went to the Van Gogh Museum. It was there, seeing Van Gogh’s paintings in the flesh, that Vincent suddenly came to life with the force of a thousand stars. That was now over 25 years ago, so much of the detail has faded. Yet, I still vividly remember how his paintings came to life. Indeed, I could swear they were moving. You know, the irises, the sunflowers… The whole experience blew my mind.

A few months later, I even visited his house…The Maison de Van Gogh in Cuesmes, Belgium near Mons. This was where Van Gogh worked as an itinerant preacher. That was yet another mind-blowing Vincent experience.

Vincent and I were growing closer…

Starry Night MOMA

Vincent Van Gogh “Starry Night”, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

His Paintings

When it comes to Vincent’s works, I find it hard to pick a favourite. Of course, there’s Starry Night, but I also love his Sunflower series. I love sunflowers, but when you hear that the Amsterdam Sunflower contains 32 different tones of yellow, you’ve got to respect the mind-boggling genius of the man, and his sensitive attentive to detail. As a cafe lover, I adore Cafe Terrace At Night 1888.

After immersing myself in all things Vincent for the last couple of weeks, I’ve also been struck by an intriguing pair of paintings: Vincent’s Chair With His Pipe (1888) (left) and Gauguin’s Armchair (1888). The two chairs are like chalk and cheese and were painted while Gauguin stayed with Vincent at the Yellow House in Arles. Vincent’s chair was comparatively simple and painted in daylight. On the other hand, Gauguin’s chair was much more sophisticated, and it was painted at night. Van Gogh seemingly hero-worshipped Gauguin and bent over backwards to prepare the Yellow House for his arrival. This included painting the first of the two sunflower paintings to decorate the walls. He also had furniture made and asked Theo to help Gauguin out of his financial woes . However, their friendship became rather tempestuous. During a heated argument, Van Gogh cut off his ear and Gauguin returned to Paris.  The breakdown in their friendship must’ve devastated Vincent.

Van Gogh’s Last Days

Unfortunately, no discussion of Vincent Van Gogh is complete without addressing the psychological/psychiatric struggles which plagued him towards the end of his life. These, as you may well be aware, culminated in him cutting off his ear and ultimately committing suicide by shooting himself in the stomach. He died two days later.

Vincent was only 37 years old.

If you are a lover of Van Gogh’s and are particularly interested in his last days, I strongly recommend you see the movie: Loving Vincent. It’s now available on DVD. They have animated hundreds of his paintings in the movie, and also question whether he actually took his own life.

So, without any further ado, here’s my letter to Vincent Van Gogh:

Maldives Postage Stamps

Letter to Vincent Van Gogh

Dear Vincent,

Vincent! Vincent! Wherefore art thou, Vincent? You appear before me like a dream, an apparition. Stars are swirling through a wave of blue, carrying me to a place inside my head, which exists somewhere beyond the lines.

Like you, I feverishly work away. Not for dollars and cents or immediate payment, but through a belief in something bigger. I don’t know whether you can set a dollar amount on that. Yet an artist, a writer, needs to eat and pay for their kids’ school shoes and excursions. These realities place a sense of gravity on even the most inspired imagination. That is,  unless we have no strings, no ties to hold us down to the earth, and we can just do as we please. However, that life is not for me. As much as I might crave time and space to write and “be”, I’d die in my own orbit. My family and I are one, interwoven, yet each is our own being (however that works).

Vincent, I hope you don’t mind me dredging up the past. However, there are many doubters among us, who could ironically also be termed: “believers”. I just find it hard to accept that you took your life. That after suffering for so long, why then? Your paintings might not have been selling, but you were producing masterpiece after masterpiece. Surely, you could see that. What went wrong? Indeed, I’m even starting to wonder if you even shot yourself at all. Did somebody else pull the trigger, and you wouldn’t say? Please speak up now. Send me a letter. It’s never too late.

Your loving friend,

Rowena

Van Gogh Crows In A Wheatfield

Vincent Van Gogh, Crows in a Wheatfield, Van Gogh Museum.

Letter From Van Gogh

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for your letter. My old friend Joseph Roulin from Post Office in Arles delivered it this morning. We were both overjoyed.  Joseph’s been missing the old post office. You’re the only one who ever sends a letter around here and we’re all trying to work out who’ll be next.

By the way, I loved the stamps. Who would’ve thought!

Sorry I can’t help you with the details of my final days. I’ve put all those earthly matters behind me now.

However, I wanted to send you a fragment of a letter I wrote to my brother, Theo on the 21st July, 1882:

“What I want and have as my aim is infernally difficult to achieve, and yet I don’t think I am raising my sights too high. I want to make drawings that touch some people.”

That’s what it’s all about.

I’m not sure that I regret not finding fame and fortune in my life time,. However, it baffles me that I could be spat upon and ridiculed in life, yet hero-worshipped in death. Does that make any sense to you?

Your friend,

Vincent

Sources

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_van_Gogh

[1] http://www.webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/19/571.htm

http://blog.vangoghgallery.com/index.php/en/2012/07/29/van-gogh-and-gauguins-chairs/

The Yellow House, Arles

 

Further Reading

https://www.facebook.com/VanGoghMuseum/videos/10159187334010597/

DVD: Loving Vincent

Brainpickings: The Fluid Dynamics of Starry Night

The Unexpected Maths in Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night

 

 

 

 

C- Grace Cossington Smith (1892 – 1984): A-Z Challenge.

As you may recall,my theme for the 2018 A-Z April Challenge is writing Letters to Dead Artists. So far, we’ve had:

A: Alexandros of Antioch (sculpted the Venus de Milo)

B: Botticelli

Although Cezanne beckoned for Letter C, I have chosen Australian artist, Grace Cossington Smith, who virtually lived and painted in my own backyard in Sydney’s leafy North Shore. Moreover, while I’d previously dismissed her work as being too domestic, I’ve now gained a deeper appreciation of her ground-breaking use of modernist techniques and the full breadth of the subjects ranging from The Sock Knitter (1915), through to The Bridge in-Curve (1930). By the way, getting back to Cezanne, Cossington Smith was heavily influenced by the French modernist, so you could say he’s peering out through some of her brushstrokes.

Grace Cossington Smith lived at Cossington, 43 Ku-Ring-Gai Avenue, Turramurra five minutes drive away from where I grew up and where my parents still live. Yet, despite our geographical proximity, I have felt our views were worlds apart.

You see, as an independent, modern woman, her heavy use of domestic  subjects irked me. In particular, there was The Sock Knitter. While knitting might have made a comeback in recent years, in my youth, knitting was old-fashioned, domestic and something grandmothers or aunties did.

The Sock Knitter

The Sock Knitter 1915.

However, once I started researching Cossington Smith, I found out that The Sock Knitter was actually a ground breaking, modernist work. Moreover, the painting also contains a noble back story. You see, her sister, Madge, was actually knitting socks to assist Australian troops on the notorious Western Front, who were sinking through the mud and developing trench foot. She was performing a community service. Moreover, women weren’t the only ones knitting socks for the troops. Boys at Sydney’s Cranbrook College also knitted socks, which resulted in a saying which is still floating round: “If you can’t get a girl, get a Cranbrook boy.”

In addition to The Sock Knitter, Cossington Smith painted many scenes around the house and was always painting and drawing. This reflected the utmost importance of her family, and I guess also their availability. The apparent contentment of their family life also provides the modern family with a wake-up call…that the home doesn’t have to be a prison. That “home” is what we make it. After all, love, family, community, belonging…what’s so wrong with all of that? Why do we mock and persecute it all so much? We each need a refuge from life’s storms, and ideally that is a place called “home”. Of course, I know this isn’t always the case, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, or that peace on the home front should be perceived as an unattainable ideal!

On that note, I get the feeling that we as a society have deified work, and for too many of us, work has become home. Worse still, that thanks to the mobile phone and laptop, work has even invaded the home front, which used to be our sacred haven.

However, Cossington Smith also painted a ground-breaking portrayal of the Sydney Harbour Bridge The Bridge in-Curve (1930). This dynamic work shows the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at that very exciting and critical moment that the two arches were about to connect above the harbour in an incredible feat of engineering. I absolutely love this painting and had it was in my kitchen for many years. It has such energy and force.

Thanks to this painting, I developed more of a connection with Cossington Smith. You see, I absolutely love the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Every time I go over it or even catch a glimpse of it, I get a buzz. Moreover, it’s an amazing sensation when you fly back into Sydney, and see the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House waiting for you as though you never left home. On a more personal note, when I used to have infusions of IVIG at Royal North Shore Hospital, I used to look out across the urban jungle and fixate on the pair of flags at the top of The Bridge. Needless to say, when you’re having a canula jabbed into dry veins, watching the Bridge made a huge difference

Speaking of illness, in later life Grace Cossington Smith became an invalid and couldn’t leave her home. However, that didn’t stop her from experimenting and looking for new ways of seeing and images to paint. Indeed, she’d angle the huge mirrors a on her gigantic bedroom wardrobe to catch a glimpse of blue sky[1]” That sounds quite sad, but also shows her resourcefulness and incredible strength of spirit.

So, without further ado, here’s my letter to Grace Cossington Smith.

Grace Cossington Smith Self Portrait 1948Letter to Grace Cossington Smith

Dear Grace,

How are you? I can hardly imagine that a little thing like dying has dampened your fervent love of painting. Indeed, you must have an unlimited range of captive subjects up there.

I thought you’d enjoy afternoon tea under The Bridge here at Kirribilli. So, I’ve set up a little table and chairs and brought my Shelley Sunlit under the Tall Trees tea set, which reminds me of the towering gum trees around Pymble and Turramurra.

By the way, how do you like your tea?

I guess you’d be surprised to hear there’s now a tunnel underneath Sydney Harbour, yet another engineering marvel we didn’t think could happen. I’m not sure that you really want to know about all the other changes that have taken place, although Australia has had its first female Prime Minister and we recently legalized same sex marriage. Sadly, we still haven’t had an Aboriginal Prime Minister. There are other changes too, and I felt quite sad when I saw your painting of Eastern Road, Turramurra. When you drive through the North Shore these days, huge blocks of apartments have risen out of the earth like alien invaders. I still remember when North Ryde was green pastures dotted with cows, and I am not that old.

However, for better or worse, I’ve since left the North Shore and live near the beach, where I can get where I want, and can be myself. The waves are so accepting.

Our next stop is going to be the Grace Cossington Smith Gallery at your former school, Abbotsleigh. They can’t wait to meet you and no doubt you’ll be excited to see so many of your works congregated together.

Time is slipping away, so let’s carpe diem seize the day before it’s gone.

Warm regards,

Rowena

Reply from Grace Cossington Smith

Dear Rowena,

Thank you so much for morning tea beneath The Bridge. Seeing The Bridge again, was like catching up with an old friend, and I’d also forgotten the refreshing salve of a good cup of tea.

However, I can’t tell you what it meant to visit the Grace Cossington Gallery. Naturally, one fears that our work will die with us, and we’ll both be forgotten. So, to finally see my work recognised and honoured in this way, brought such joy.

Of course, Abbotsleigh under Miss Clarke, always encouraged my talent and I was taught by professional artists.

I was also lucky that my parents were so supportive. As you may be aware, my father built a studio for me in the backyard at Cossington. They had such faith in me, and never suggested that just because I was a woman, that I couldn’t become a professional artist. No one forced me to get married either, and have a family. I could pursue my own path. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. There wasn’t a lot of choice for women back then.

Next time, could you please take me back to Cossington. I’d love to visit Cossie again and  float around her walls like a ghost.

Many thanks and best wishes,

Grace Cossington Smith

References

[1] https://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/grace-cossington-smith/2005/11/02/1130823276320.html

Further Research

Grace Cossington Smith – A Retrospective NGA

The Grace Cossington Smith Gallery

Do you have a favourite artist starting with C? Or, if you’re taking part in the A-Z Challenge, please leave a link through to your post.

xx Rowena

B: Botticelli…A-Z Challenge.

This year my theme for the A-Z Challenge is Letters to Dead Artists. Yesterday’s artist was A: Alexandros of Antioch who reputedly sculpted the famous Venus de Milo.

Today, I am writing to Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445 – May 17, 1510), an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance. He belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

I was introduced to Botticelli’s works in 1992 when I visited Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, as a 23 year old Australian backpacking through Europe. That was when I first saw The Birth of Venus. I was awestruck, and loved it enough to buy a print and cart it all the way back to Australia in my very overweight backpack. That says a lot!

In addition to admiring his achievements as an artist, this letter also addresses Botticelli’s role and possible participation in the Bonfire of the Vanities.  On the 7th February 1497, supporters of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books in Florence, Italy, on the Mardi Gras festival. It is believed that Botticelli may have added some of his works to the pyre. It is hard to comprehend what went up in those flames, but there’s no doubt that priceless works of art and other cultural treasures were destroyed.

Sandro_Botticelli_083

Probable self-portrait of Botticelli, in his Adoration of the Magi (1475)

Letter to Sandro Botticelli

Dear Botticelli,

How are you? I expect that’s a rather rhetorical question these days. I was only being polite, but if you feel like responding in some way, I’d only be too happy to hear from you. Sometimes, the walls between heaven and earth aren’t quite what they seem, and people might even wander in and out. I don’t know. They’ve never spoken to me.

Anyway, I am writing to you to ask you a question. While that might seem simple enough, it’s much easier to ask a lot of questions, than it is to narrow it down to one, especially when I’m writing to such a monumentally great artist like yourself.

Botticelli, I first came across your paintings in the Summer of 1992 when I spent three days in Florence. It was stinking hot and I still remember the relief of an icy cold, real Italian gelato. Although I’d already visited The Louvre in Paris which had blown my mind, going to the Uffizzi Gallery, also felt like all my senses were being energized at once. I still remember seeing The Birth of Venus on the wall with its fairytale beauty and Venus standing in the shell. It was mesmerizing. Yet, it didn’t end there. Like a glutton at a sumptuous feast, there was more, including Primavera (1470s or early 1480s) and Pallas and the Centaur (1482-1483). I had just had my heart broken and I knew that anguish screaming through the centaur’s eyes. I also remember being swept away by your more religious works, although I can’t remember them by name.I don’t know how to describe that enormity of feeling. The best I can do, is compare it to falling in love…all consuming, passionate, divine.

Primavera

Primavera, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery.

I don’t know whether it’s right to pull apart those feelings, or to try to work out why. Or, whether I should be pulling apart and analysing the life out of such a masterpiece. Or, whether it is better to simply leave it be as pure, unadulterated  awe and wonder.

One thing’s for sure. I didn’t want to hear this magnificent reflection of something in my soul denigrated by my future boyfriend as: “the naked woman standing in a shell”. What? How could he? Philistine! Despite being a Christian, I didn’t denigrate it because it was “pagan” either. How could I let ideology or doctrine come between me and something of such beauty and spirit?

This brings me to the Bonfire of the Vanities and my question.

How did you allow yourself to be swept away by Girolama Savonarola? How could you even be a bystander to the Bonfire of the Vanities on February 7, 1497 in Piazza del Signoria, Florence? Indeed, it’s even been suggested that you even added some of your own works to the pyre. I’m sorry if I’m coming on a bit too strong, but I can’t understand how an artist like you could stand by and do nothing. Let it happen. Or, even worse, join in and be a part of it.

That’s not to judge you, Sir. I didn’t mean to get so fired up. However, it terrifies me that The Birth of Venus and your other so-called “pagan works” could have been, in effect, burned at the stake, and humanity robbed. Indeed, I shudder at all the artworks and treasures that were lost. No doubt, you do too.

Strangely, I only found out about the Bonfire of the Vanities last night. Of course, you can’t know every piece of history. Yet, as a writer, a photographer, a creative who fears the mighty forces of fire and flood, I should have known about that. Marked it on my calendar every year to remember how doctrine and politics can destroy the creative spirit and its progeny.

I wonder how you feel about all that now. Is there regret? Perhaps, but I hope you’re primarily proud of how your works have been revered and considered among the greatest paintings of all time. You’re a genius!

Indeed, I wish I could meet you and not just sit down for a coffee, but to see you paint. Hear you speak. What inspired you? How can a 21st century woman on the other side of the world, possibly tap into whatever that was?

I hope. I dream. I write.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Rowena in Florence

Photographed at a monastry near Florence in 1992.

Letter From Botticelli

Dear Rowena,

Thank you very much for your letter.

Now, what was your question? Please excuse me. I’m feeling a bit foggy today and haven’t had to bother myself with earthly matters for a very long time. Indeed, much of your memory gets deleted once you enter the pearly gates. After all, you’re not supposed to be spending eternity regretting things on Earth when you’re in heaven!

Yet, nothing could erase those flames, and seeing those precious masterpieces burning up. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, we followed him like lambs to the slaughter house. Florence was magnificent…the jewel of the Renaissance.  She wasn’t perfect but, it wasn’t Sodom and Gomorrah. It wasn’t hell on Earth. Well, that is until he stepped in.

In my defense, Rowena, I would like to suggest that you can’t always control of your own strings. Not that you’re a puppet, but even an artist has to eat and to some extent, each of us has had to sell our soul. Serve it up on a platter. That’s just the way it is…or how it was.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard that they now hide artworks away during times of war and keep the world’s great masterpieces away from the battlefield. Protect what is more than just a reflection of humanity, a mirror, but also radiates the human spirit. As you might appreciate, art crosses language and cultural barriers and draws humans closer together. Well, that’s if we allow ourselves to be moved.

Anyway, I haven’t asked you if you paint? I’ve always been a great teacher. If you feel like popping back, I’d be happy to teach you.

Best wishes,

Botticelli.