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Jan/Feb 2010 Book Reviews

Source: Nature's Healing Role in Art and Writing

Janine Burke.
Source: Nature's Healing Role in Art and Writing.

Allen & Unwin. 2009. 432 pp.
ISBN: 978 1 74175 9177

Reviewed by Ann Skea


"Creativity is place," says Janine Burke in the introduction to Source. And that place, she believes, is the beginning and end of every artist's journey. It is the childhood realm, "the original source of inspiration and identity." For all but one of the artists and writers in this book, however, it was not their birthplace but a found location in which they produced their major works.

As the chapter titles in Source indicate, Burke has chosen a wide and disparate range of artists through which to explore this idea: "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Desert," "Picasso's Provence," "Karen Blixen's Homelands," "Jackson Pollock on Long Island," "Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Sussex," "Ernest Hemingway in Key West," "Monet, Blanche Hochedé and Giverny," and "Emily Kame Kngwarreye's Utopia." She outlines the creative lives of each of these men and women, discusses their desires and disaffections, their marriages, passions, strengths and weaknesses, and their work. She also visits the places in which they were most creative and offers her own vision of what inspired them. Inevitably, given the very unusual lives of all of her subjects, their stories involve "mourning and regeneration," and "patterns of illness, alcoholism, syphilis, breakdowns and suicide." But these are also stories of achievement and rebirth.

Source is an interesting book, not just because of the lives it documents but also because of the similarities which Burke traces between these creative lives. Sadly, the book cannot reproduce all the artistic work she discusses, but there is a good range of full-colour plates which help to illustrate her themes.

Of particular interest, is her account of the work of Blanche Hochedé, the daughter of Alice Hochedé who became Monet's lover and, later, his wife. Blanche was part of Monet's household almost constantly, from the time he first took her family into his Vétheuil home when they were declared bankrupt, until his death at Giverny in 1926. As a teenager, Blanche decided to become an artist and she began to work beside Monet, learning all that she could from him. He, in turn, encouraged her and also painted her at work. Eventually, she became his studio-assistant and, as well as exhibiting her own work professionally, it is very likely that she helped Monet with his when he became older and less active. There is some debate over whether she actually worked on any of Monet's canvasses, but Burke makes a good case for her having done so, and she deplores the fact that Blanche has been given little recognition for the help and support which she certainly provided for Monet for much of his creative life.

The last of Burke's subjects, the Australian Aboriginal artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, is the least known to most people. Emily began to create batik art work when she was sixty-six years old and she did not paint her first picture until twelve years after that. Her first paintings immediately won critical acclaim and in 1997 she was a chosen representative of Australia at the Venice Biennale. Her work now hangs in major art galleries around the world. She died in 1996.

Emily's painting grew from her kinship with the land of the Central Desert in the Northern Territories of Australia. She was a tribal elder, guardian of a particular Aboriginal food plant, and an important senior woman in her tribe. Her place of inspiration was the desert land on which she lived, and Burke visited this land as part of her research for Source. Faced with the reality of Aboriginal life in a remote part of the Central Desert, she struggled to come to terms with the "schismatic vision" of tribal people who produce "subtle and sophisticated art," who are intimately connected to the land of which they are the "spiritual custodians," and yet live in squalor and seemingly have "scant regard for their environment."

Emily's Utopia (that is the name of the area where she lived and worked) is not the Utopia we might imagine. Burke's initial impression is that she has descended into "one of the circles of hell." She is shocked by the snotty-nosed children, the desecrated houses, the rubbish and the plastic bags festooning the desert; and she is angered by the unreproved cruelty that a young boy inflicts on a dog. Yet, from this seeming neglect comes delicate art based on tribal beliefs and stories. She recognizes her desire to impose her own cultural standards and she tries to come to terms with her own lack of understanding.

No such shock is produced by the creative utopias of Burke's other artists and writers. She visits their houses with delight and describes them and the landscape around them glowingly. Perhaps too glowingly at times. It is interesting to compare her description of Jackson Pollock's studio at Springs on Long Island with that of art historian Robert Hughes. Burke's visitor stands, as she has done, in Pollock's paint spattered studio and "feels energy rushing up from the floor, from the web of painted lines, so fast and intense it seems she is lifted off the floor." Hughes, in his vast and impressive book American Visions, describes the "shrine" of "Jack the Dripper" (a title he borrowed from an early Time magazine feature on Pollock). He sees only the "Miraculous brushes," the "Sanctified Shoes" and the "surplus drips of the Master, the sacramental ichor" that went off the edges of his great works.

Nevertheless, Source is an interesting and absorbing book. The illustration are beautiful, the photographs of her subjects are unusual, and Burke makes a very pleasant, relaxed and informed companion and guide to the lives and work of her chosen artists and writers.

 

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