From "Forty Shades of Green".
Metal and leather, metal and leather. The winter of 1946, but I remember, I remember. The smell and the taste. The bare, sterile room, and the metal smell. The four white walls, and the nurses in white, as they buckled two metal plates at either side of my head with a leather strap, right here at my temples. The strap cut into my forehead and then the doctor put something in my mouth to bite on. The taste of leather.
That moment between the buckling down and the beginning of the hot blue crackle, that moment almost worse than what follows, the body-quake and brain-quake, the heart-quake, heart-break. A long moment, especially after the first time. One knows what to expect then. Quaking and shaking, even before it happens.
A shrill noise and a fierce, great body-brain-heart quake, a jolting crescendo until my bones are breaking apart, my heart is splitting, a teeth-shattering, spirit-spinning descent into Hell, for five minutes or fifty-five, no way of knowing, no such thing as time, no clock tick-rocking, time afterwards all out of sync, there is only the present remembered in that quiet future of grey days in the white-walled day room, a present of being shattered, split, jolted, jilted. And then it stops.
Later, after Doctor Harvey, there was a needle to put one to sleep first. But, even though I did not remember it happening, I still never wanted it to happen again.
It made me very tired all the time. Everything is cut up, but I am used to that, life being cut in two. My interior world that is captivating and vivid and where time does not exist; and the world I am continually forced into, the tedious place of rules and relations, good behaviour and bad, divisions and gradations so subtle I cannot see them, but other people can. I do not know why they can, and I cannot. It is as if a bad fairy cast a spell on me at my christening. She did not have the power to take away any of the gifts I had already been given, but she said, 'I do have the power to make none of these gifts do you any good.'
Before I know it, I have brushed up against some rule or stubbed my toe on some iron expectation hidden in the shadows. I am always offending somebody. Unknowingly until too late. Doing things I cannot help. It is the way God made me, like my heavy arms. The way they looked in a strapless evening gown, never slim enough, my matter how slim I have whittled down my waist.
Society page photographs, balls and parties, tea dances and the theatre. My chubby white arms emerging from the soft, elbow-length gloves. At least my arms were all creamy white flesh then, graceful in their way, young miniature white whales, but now, when I take off my cardigan to raise up my arms for my flannelette nightie to float down upon my body, they have lost all their plump and pleasing firmness. I know they were pleasing because men used to take pleasure in them. My mother was not pleased, by them, or by me. But, at least in my youth, I and my arms were presentable. I was presented in a white ball gown of silk and organza at my debut, curtsying to the City of Sydney Lord Mayor and waltzing away with my young man.
My arms are dead fish, now, bloated and inert, and the under-parts jiggle, bad enough that my hands shake, bad enough, one would surely think, but there is always worse to come.
'There is always someone worse off than you,' my mother used to say.
She was attempting to make me feel better, I suppose, rather than attempting to make me feel ungrateful, as I then supposed. There is plenty of time here to think. And that is the thing: just when one has plenty of time, they stop one thinking. If only in my youth, I had thought. If only in my youth, I had looked before I leapt. Impetuous, reckless, unrestrained and uncontrollable, they said. Uncooperative.
I used to make people laugh. Even my husband Howard, early on.
'It's a gift,' he said, 'You have a gift.'
The more I used it, the more it grew. I was his golden goose. He appreciated it, up to a point. All right, if you like laughing.
Then he wiped the laughter off my face.
My friends who slept at the Domain under cardboard or in the Darlinghurst fiats under the stairwell thought I had a gift, too. It was warm there. We slept well there, and we did a lot of laughing. I was a mimic. Bea Miles said that I was the funniest thing she had heard in years, and it was not mockery.
Where did that talent go? My laughter, my gift, my golden eggs of mirth. It was all shaken out of me, shaken and shocked out of me. It was an evil magic, the electric shock, and hit or miss, hit that Miss, she is uncooperative, and she has lost her sense of humour. It hits, all right, but it misses fixing. They think it fixes us, but I never saw anybody it fixed, any more than the pills fix people. The pills just make it bearable, and make us bearable to our relations, and make continuing to exist bearable to us. Bearable, but not a barrel of laughs. Well, if we all laughed all the time, the place would be very noisy. It would be a mad house.
No one wants that. Sedated is what they want. It is easier, quieter, more manageable. Peaceful.
One can become stuck in peacefulness. Stuck. Somehow I became stuck. Struck dumb. That is what happened. My big mouth always got me into trouble. Not supposed to say or write 'got' but why not? Mother said it is ill-bred to use 'got'. Supposed to use 'received'. The truth is, my big mouth did always get me into trouble, and there is no way round it. When I went too far, I was struck dumb, as in a fairy tale. The wicked witch cut out my tongue.
Cut out her tongue with those silver scissors. It was my father who insisted I learn to sew. All girls need to know how to sew, he said. It was tedious, as tedious as the day room on a Monday after the Sunday visits are gone, and life gets-get, again--sorry, Mother--life gets back to normal.
'I can't wait to get back to normal,' I remember saying.
And Mother sniffed. 'Olivia, my dear,' she said, pity in her brown eyes, 'You were never normal.'
Everyone I love disappears. My father. My lover. The husband I knew disappeared. Or the husband I thought I knew. Which was the real him? Perhaps the nice one was the real one, and the horrid one the imposter. But that's not true. It's difficult to perceive what is real, sometimes, but of my husband's real nature, I am sure. Actions speak louder than words. Actually, Howard's actions shrieked rather than spoke. Howard was a stranger to subtlety.
It is true that Howard's actions plus his words draped a heavy fog over my brain. But I was subject to such fogs even before I met him. I can't blame him for causing them, only for reinforcing them. All my life, even as a girl, the fog would come down at odd times. I felt that if I could just break through the fog, it would be all right. It was unpredictable. A disappointment, or some little thing would happen, and suddenly, the sun had gone, and all was shade, I was shivering, and could barely see for the dark. A thick, penetrating fog invaded my being, and sometimes lasted for weeks.
It was like having a fever. During the fever, there is no other world, it is the only reality one knows. Then when one wakes, and it is gone, it is difficult to recall just what it was like.
Howard could make that fog descend very easily. I did not understand his business concerns, he said, when I began to object to some of his activities. Much of his life was above my head, he said. And when he gave me that expensive camera, he thought I would be sensible, and take landscapes and portraits of my family and friends, not pictures of him and his business associates. It was stupid, he said, to get out my camera at nightclubs and card games, at late night parties and at the races. When you take pictures of people, he said, you should only take them at their best moments, and, as any fool would know--any fool, but you--you should warn them, so that they can pose properly.
'I knew you were stupid when I married you,' he said, taking out a Pall Mall and tapping its end on his silver cigarette case twice, thrice, four times, while eyeing my face with cool disdain. Then, he put the cigarette between his well-shaped lips, and said, 'But I didn't think that it would matter so much.'
She was the Irish one, she should have had the gift of the gab, but it was I who gabbed on. I was always a word person, my head in a book drinking other people's words like nectar or scribbling my own ideas in an exercise book, I was one for talking streams of quicksilver words. Art was a language inside her that she did not have to speak in words, a way of conversing without talking. Mind you, she was firing on all syllables when she had her fights with Norman Lindsay! She told him that World War One had made the canons of beauty he favoured irrelevant. Norman did not appreciate his models talking back.
Deirdre focused on cubism at first. But some time after she met me, her pictures did begin to contain actual words. Look at that early portrait of me floating in a pale silver sky above Clovelly. My hair is blown every which way by the breeze and every long strand is made of tiny words: phrases or descriptions, observations or reflections, commonsense or nonsensical words, all kinds of words making up the whirling, swirling strands of hair against the evening sky.
Some of her collages have words scratched into the thick paint. Words crawl around the perimeters, words leap across the frame, words stream out of people's mouths in a torrent of exuberance, words are written down people's backs, or at the bottom of a creek, words roll in the waves of the seashore, words even leak from the frame down the wall at an exhibition. People laughed and said, 'No one will buy that!'
It was typical of her excess. She was always overflowing the space she was allotted. She came from a tiny island off Ireland, and now lived on an enormous island. We were taught that Australia was the biggest island and the smallest continent. England is smaller but I suppose they might have included her with Europe. Deirdre was small physically but in every other way vast. Wherever she went she made an impact with her big personality and her talent.
Some pictures did not work, some lines became lost along the way. But her pictures are not about perfection, they are about taking risks. Some risks were unsuccessful. Part of the process. Mother said only God can be perfect. I think perfection would be boring.
The travelling is the thing. I have travelled a long way in my time, and I have had a great deal of time. Her pictures were journeys, maps of places step by step to she knew not where. She would sometimes step back from a painting and wonder, 'Where is this going?' Whereas Howard only asked, 'Where's my dinner?'
Deirdre's notebooks were doorways into a space where she could sketch, doodle, play, let her pencil dance across the page, allow her thoughts to tumble onto paper, let her feelings spill out in ink and colour, form and shape. On the surface, she was calm, but inside she was a demon of passion and abandon. She was not the kind of artist who made preparatory sketches. She plunged right into the work, plunged right into everything she tried.
She would scribble sometimes into a notebook, which was a diary of sensations and descriptions, flotsam and jetsam of things heard or seen, poetry she had read or experimental colour mixes. Then she would set that aside, and be engaged by other things. When she was ready, she would make the collage, working from an arrangement in her head, apparently, or from seeing how one thing looked in juxtaposition with another on the canvas.
And even though she incorporated words in the paintings and collages, it is still true that art nourished her in a way that words never could. She always said that a person can lie with words but a picture one paints will tell the truth--even if the painter does not want it to.
The model hears everything. The model does not speak. The model is learning along with the students. I learnt that Norman Lindsay was patronising to the women he claimed to love so much. Norman had fixed ideas on beauty and art and women, and was less interested in exploring other ideas than in expanding his ego. The modelling I did for Antony Datillo Rubbo's classes was different from modelling for Norman.
I learnt from Antony Datillo Rubbo that the material sense of man could be directed to that which is beyond matter. He talked like that. Such exciting ideas rolling around my world in those days. One could see the energy whirling, one can see it still in those paintings of Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre, of Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley, and in the work of Deirdre Wild. All the beautiful young men and women in the classes and all the whirling, swirling pictures they painted of energy and joy. See? Energy and joy--those are two things that are beyond matter.
When Deirdre Wild joined the class she had an energy that would not be stilled. What it was to see her work. Picture it: she takes a brush and dips it in ink, her hand flows free, her wrist as fluid as the ink with which she works, fingers moving impatiently yet gracefully to capture the movement, capture the moment.
And at Clovelly the moment is always changing, the sea is always fresh to her, the land is never still. The breeze moves the banksia branches and the Norfolk pines, it waves the salt-faded grasses, and it blows our hair in strands across our faces. Inside the house, I see her table piled high with art books to feed her mind, with tubes of paint to colour her days and candles to keep out the dark. Through the window and over the cliff lies the Pacific. She is fascinated with the foamy edge of the sea washing back and forth, back and forth, for eternity. She has made a hundred charcoal sketches of this liquid lace, and I take dozens of photographs of it and of her sketching it, I zoom my Leica up to capture sea birds wheeling in the sky, then down again to catch her back as she walks to the shore, a tiny figure amidst sand and sea and sky.
She does not see what is there and then sketch it. Instead, in her sketching lies her seeing. She sees an untidy, asymmetric space and does not know what she will sketch or paint before she does it. She does not know how it will turn out and she told me once that she does not lead a line with her charcoal, she is led by it, led deeper and deeper into the landscape, a landscape where she is the sea, she is the sand, she breathes the salt freshness and more than breathes--becomes--she becomes everything she sees, going deeper into everything as she sketches and as she paints, the work continues without her conscious effort. Filling a space with line, form, colour, texture, filling it with music that only she can hear, moving her body to the ever-changing rhythm of the sand and sea and sky.
Colour is good for the soul, she used to say. But colour faded from her work in the lonely years after Charles died. Weeks and months went by when she did not work at all, only walked along the beach, wearing herself out so she could sleep at night. Sometimes she worked, she kept her hand in, she stayed alive, looked after Maureen in the holidays, she did what was necessary and worked some more.
The time passed slowly, but pass it did, and in time the heart renews itself and one spring, a spring noticed for the first time in many, many seasons, the freshness returned to her work. Somewhere between chance and mystery lies the imagination and somewhere between her old life and the new lay the enigmatic style she developed in those uncertain times. She worked and worked, buried herself in art books from the School of Art library and after the time wore itself out, she looked up from an old grief and saw a new horizon. Her painter's hand flew free again, exulting in its own agility, surprised at the pictures it produced.
She painted the island of her girlhood, she painted Clovelly Bay, she painted the landscape of her loss. She painted through forgotten meals and the postman's whistle, through my comings and goings and cups of tea turned cold. She painted until there was no more light, she painted until exhausted, then she lay down on the couch in her clothes and slept.
I took off her shoes and folded a downy rug around her. I tucked a strand of soft black hair behind her ear and tiptoed away to find my camera.
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|Title Annotation:||Traveling Modernisms|
|Date:||May 1, 2009|
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