|Jul/Aug 2001 Book Reviews|
Picador, Pan Macmillan (April 2001) 364 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36186 4
"For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work. Help me, in saying it, to understand it."
Stravinsky's lunch, and that of his wife and children, was taken in silence when he was composing. The slightest sound, it seems, "could destroy his concentration and ruin an entire work." Is family life, then, incompatible with great art? Is compromise impossible? Could Stravinsky not have taken his lunch on a tray in his room and left his wife and children free from such restraint?
And what about women artists? Can they possibly juggle family, love and art?
Questions of compromise lie behind all the lives in this book, including Modjeska's, but this does not make it a dry book of philosophy or polemic. On the contrary, it is a rich and engrossing book about the lives of two Australian women artists, Stella Bowen (1893-19470) and Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984), whose lives and art were very different and who dealt with this problem in very different ways. It is also a book which is richly illustrated. And Modjeska has a superb ability to describe paintings in such a way that the viewer/reader sees them anew with her, noticing subtle details and sharing the empathy she has developed with the artist through exploring that artist's life.
Unusually for a modern biographer, Modjeska is careful to distinguish between speculation and fact. Occasionally she does weave imaginary lives for her subjects but she makes it clear that these are her own fantasies and that myth is a dangerous indulgence. This is especially so in the case of Grace Cossington Smith, who "left little trace of herself. Her private personal self. There are few interviews, few letters, few photos, no diaries." All there is to work on is her art, which, in its directness and modernism is tantalizingly at odds with the description of Grace given at her memorial service as "a sweet Christian lady." "Sweet," Modjeska notes, "is never the word for an artist; or if it is, you can be sure it's not a compliment." Such pithy comment is typical of Modjeska's style.
Neither Stella Bowen nor Grace Cossington Smith are well known outside Australia, although Stella Bowen shared a decade of her life with Ford Maddox Ford, worked with him to establish and fund transatlantic review in 1924 (Tristan Tzara, e.e.cummings and Havelock Ellis featured in it), and brought up their daughter Julie. At the same time, her own art was exhibited in Paris, she wrote a weekly column ('Round the Galleries') for the London News Chronicle and, after leaving Ford, took portrait commissions in America. During World War II, she was commissioned as a war artist by the War Memorial in Canberra. Altogether, she led a very full and independent life in which she successfully managed to juggle mundane work, love and family with her commitment to fine art.
The life of Grace Cossington Smith took quite a different course. Apart from two years spent with family in England and Germany as a young girl, and a later visit to Europe in 1949-50, Grace spent all her life in Australia. She was supported by her family. Even domestic duties did not impinge on her time: a younger sister took on this role for the family and Grace "managed never to master" the kitchen arts (the position of that 'never' is subtle and telling).
Grace was artistic and talented. She won art prizes at school; her father built a studio for her in their suburban garden and paid for her to attend the Sydney art school run by Italian artist Dattilo-Rubbo. Unlike Stella Bowen, she had "No husband. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris." Yet Grace Cossington Smith was one of the first and best modernist artists in Australia, and she achieved this in spite of the critical antagonism of the powerful male art-establishment: "the buggers' union" as Naomi Mitchison, an Australian friend of Stella Bowen, called them. She achieved it, too, in spite of the fact that the work of artists like Picasso, Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse, Van Gogh and Watteau (all of whose work seems to have influenced her own) was unavailable to her in Australia, except as reproductions. This was true, too, of the work of masters like Fra Angelica, whose work she first saw and loved on her visit to Italy when she was fifty-seven.
It is shocking to be reminded that Australian artists were so cut off from the art of Europe for so long. In 1936 the director of the National Gallery of Victoria still spoke of "modernist filth"; and the first exhibition of "French and British Contemporary Art" was seen in Australia in 1939— although none of it was bought by Australian public galleries, two of which refused even to host the show.
Grace Cossington Smith succeeded by dedication as much as by talent. Many other artists felt the need to leave Australia in order to succeed: this, too, is a question Modjeska ponders.
Other artists, literary and figurative, appear in this book. Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker set the scene. Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Sitwell, Virginia Wolf, Vanessa Bell, Sinclair Lewis and (in Australia) Dattilo-Rubbo, Ethel Anderson, Julian Ashton, Margaret Preston and others become part of Modjeska's investigation of the relationship between art and life. She is erudite and intelligent but she wears her knowledge lightly. Above all she brings her two main subjects to life and shows their importance as artists and, particularly, as women artists who succeeded in the male-dominated art world in which they lived and worked. Their stories are inspiring, fascinating and thought-provoking, and Modjeska tells them wonderfully well.