August 12: Is fantasy an unwelcome intrusion on truth in life writing and photographic portrayal?
I had just finished reading Kristel Thornell’s Night Street when yesterday I went to hear Kate Forsyth speak at the Bendigo Writer’s Festival, where she was asked about the way she treats real figures from the past in her historical romances. She expressed her annoyance with those writers who do not adhere to the facts when taking a real person for a character in their stories, and who twist their life story to fit their narrative, and introduce anachronisms or other anomalies that betray insufficient research into the life.
For her own latest book The Blue Rose Forsyth has been able to trace the name of a real gardener who accompanied the British expedition to China that was the venture that may have returned with the red rose of the story. Nothing else is known of the man, so Forsyth feels at liberty to invent a character using his name, but for books like Beauty in Thorns, which is full of the real women and men of the pre-Raphaelite circle, she cannot permit herself such licence. Instead her narrative is a strategic re-drawing—more accurately a re-tracing—of the complex threads of their fateful relationships to make a story that is as a consequence richer and more intricate that even she might weave from imagination alone. Nevertheless, biography and letters leave a mere skeleton, so what is integral to the writing is a feat of imagination to fill out the historical husk with her protagonists’ thoughts, to synthesise the speech issuing from them into an enactment of those relationships, and to devise an architecture of naturalistic construction that envelops a theme.
Thornell’s debut novel Night Street, first published in 2010, was co-winner of the 2009 Australian / Vogel Literary Award and won the 2011 Dobbie Literary Award and the 2010 Barbara Ramsden Award. It also won the 2012 Andrew Eiseman Writers Award for the best book written in Western New York. It was shortlisted for the Glenda Adams Award and the Christina Stead Prize for fiction in the 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and has been included since 2014 in the Victorian Curriculum Authority’s Text Lists and has been published in North America by Goose Lane Editions.
Despite this acclaim, would Forsyth regard Night Street as having broken her taboo on the treatment of real people in fiction? Put to this test, it does. What Thornell gives us is an extensive account of two fictitious affairs amidst her otherwise fairly faithful account of Beckett’s career.
To be fair, at the end of the book she issues a disclaimer…
The Clarice who appears in this work is not Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), but my imagining of her…I attempted to ‘look’ at Beckett as she might have looked at a landscape, squinting to soften edges and reach beyond detail in the search for patterns of light and shade.
The designer of the Goose Lane (Canada) edition that I read has attempted a similar reworking. On the cover is the Becket painting Wet Evening of 1927 for which Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum is credited; it happens to be from a photographic copy I made for the Gallery (another from the Castlemaine collection, Boatshed, Beaumaris, can be seen below, with, appropriately, the greyscale and colour patches I used to determine colour rendition).
I say ‘reworking’ because while the cover (above) is a vertically-cropped detail from a landscape-format painting, in the upper left a further edit has been applied; a grey intrusion that is an extension of the foliage in the original and a mechanical-looking stroke that hovers against the simple silhouette of a roof gable at the centre of the cover. Despite being known as a ‘tonalist’, a grey unmodulated by some colour was not used by Beckett, and here these blobs and squiggles, despite being rendered in soft focus, are an ugly intrusion on the vision of anyone at all familiar with the painter’s work. And they are unnecessary since there is already some framing foliage, a soft dark mass of deep phthalocyanine green of the dense ti-tree in near darkness of evening along Beach Road.
I should declare my own intimate familiarity with the landscape of Beaumaris that Beckett painted. I grew up there, but some twenty and thirty years after she had passed so early, at 48, the same age as were my brother and father when they died. I know the bitter tannin of the leaves of the Leptospermum laevigatum, the Coastal Ti-tree. I recall with a smile the coiling lumpy seedpods of the Acacia Longifolia Sophorae and their pungent farty odour when crushed that delighted us as school children, quite in contrast to the faint cinnamon perfume of their caterpillar-like yellow blossoms. I lay on hot windy days in the shade of the twisting rough grey trunks of Banksia integrifolia, entranced as the wind turned its long serrated leaves, dark green on top, white beneath. A generous tree, it rewarded a caress of its cylindrical flowers by leaving our hands honeyed with a delicious nectar which we could lick greedily.
Around the beach the soft yellowish or orange sandstone was exposed by the action of the waves, and still you could find aboriginal wells cut into it. But away from the sea and under the dense scrub, the fine sand, covered in the tracks of skinks, snakes and weevil beetles, turns grey, and quite black beneath, from rotting vegetation. In my teenage years all that boggy sand of the bush tracks was tarred over, the empty blocks were all covered by ever more expensive houses, and the heath and scrub all disappeared. I have returned rarely, only to be saddened by the vestigial reminders of an edenic childhood. What I was seeking in buying Thornell’s novel was some sweet evocation of Beaumaris as I knew it, but also an insight into Beckett’s process of painting.
This does have to do with photography.
Beckett’s was an extension of the scientific method promoted by Max Meldrum, her mentor. His Tonalism required that symbolism and narrative be subjugated to an intense, objective observation that was to be transposed exactly onto the canvas in abbreviated tones. For me her paintings, and the way they conjure my Beaumaris memories, are proof of the success of this approach. Thornell devotes much of her writing to describing what for me is so like the process of photography, involving the same substitution and abbreviation of observed tonality that is formulated in Ansel Adams’ ‘previsualisation’ and his Zone System.
What Beckett brought to this was colour, and that is rendered, not so much in ’soft focus’ or through a ‘mist’ as has been described by her critical contemporaries, but more precisely like something else I remember. One day with my father I visited an antique shop above Red Bluff, nearer Melbourne from Black Rock and Beaumaris. In the shop was a wooden view camera—the first I’d ever seen—on a stand. Its open brass lens faced the window and a view across the Bay was projected onto its ground glass which glowed in the darkness of the shop.
Disorientingly turned upside down, the scene was formed of a flat patchwork of abstract luminous colours; flecks of surf traversed blue grainy glass and tiny trees hung their trembling branches into it. I badly wanted that camera and years later, had more than one. Above, since I am presently 100km from the sea, I have inserted (and rotated 180º) as a demonstration, one of Susan Dobson‘s evocations of the glory of ground glass in her series Viewfinder…
…shot at all five of the Great Lakes on large format film with a historic camera… the film…then scanned and digitally overlaid with scans of the ground glasses (also known as viewfinders) of large format cameras.
Beckett’s paintings, if they were photographs, might be of little interest. Her subject matter is banal and stubbornly prosaic and contrasts with that of the other tonalists, especially Meldrum’s, in eschewing anything ‘picturesque’ and by incorporating the then modern incidentals of power poles and motor cars. As photographs they would be as random snapshots, which she exceeds by painstakingly and so accurately recording atmosphere; weather conditions and qualities of light.
In photography I can think of none more bold and dedicated in that regard than Bill Henson in his The light fades but the gods remain which runs until 29 September at Monash Gallery of Art, and in which he revisits his own childhood suburbia. Like Beckett’s, Henson’s images are tightly cropped with steep perspective that renders of suburban fences, the rampant kikuyu of vacant blocks, tiled rooves and skies, a geometry of achingly beautiful colour.
Thornell might feasibly, were she more an art historian, have devoted her entire narrative to the progress of Beckett’s stylistic development without resort to fanciful romance. The real drama was Beckett’s contention with the critics; the most unfavourable and condescending being from the fascist-misogynist Melbourne Herald reviewer James S. MacDonald, but with respect and admiration from one, Percy Leason, in Table Talk. To be fair, though she does not give credit to what a breakthrough was Beckett’s embracing the dimension of colour with the same discipline as she applied to tone, Thornell does make a good fist of evoking the struggle, especially in this passage;
Sunrise seemed to come reluctantly and she felt it form and take hold of her as she fumbled with her kit in the damp, muddled time just before dawn—the darkness that was occasionally in her tingeing everything with its dark hue. The wind off the water was sharp. She fixed her focusing point, pulled her hat down lower and separated her feet further, bracing.
But then the hours of reprieve, absence, dwelling nowhere and occupying each particle of what she saw. Work. The other place.
There was a problem, early on, a blockage. She had rushed. Rushing, she distracted herself by thinking about composition. She caught herself doing it, wasting mental energy, shackled to the named world. She was not seeing but naming—bathing box, water, sky——and in this way holding on to things, stuck in their net.
She was on her own, studying under no teacher and sometimes, if this felt odd, she was able to summon Meldrum. That morning, she heard him bidding her to simplify, simplify, to forget her awareness of things.
She closed her eyes, trying to relinquish it.
Then gazed anew, cleanly at the view she was painting and yes, found herself in the space of pure ocular sensation. She raised her palette and brush. Only the visual miracle of nature existed. Where last night she had climbed out of Arthur’s van, releasing that particular dream, now she gripped the hand of reality. She would not let go. She painted, speaking only the universal language of depiction, a scientist of the visible world—or perhaps, though this could never be said to Meldrum, some class of medium or mystic. The ﬁne movements of her brush sewed her own fibres firmly to life.
In the end, when she laid her brush down and ﬁnally invited words and the things they named back like reprimanded children from the other room, Clarice thought she had the proof of her diligence. She had transcribed the visible, some of it at least; there was some truth here. She showed the seascape to its reﬂection in the mirror she had made. There.
The bathing box at the shoreline and everything suspended, nestled within a smoky haze. The brownish-olive cliff. A suggestion of the curve of the next bay. The water, nearly flat: pink, grey, white, blue. One sensed that the ocean was not senseless but a sentient, musing thing. The bathing box’s torn door was iron red. Across the expanse of water, beyond early morning’s cloudy drift, a softness of coastline.
She hankered for salt on her skin, but it was not a day for swimming; it was cold and chaotic and her body too unrcstcd. She packed up and took the path between shaggy, dispassionate gums, wattle and tea-trees. Concentration and clarity left her, now it was over, and she was gone to the dogs. The cart was even more unwieldy than before.
She was panting when, at home, she sneaked a last anxious look at her canvas, which would take days to dry and become definitive, closed the shed door on it and resumed her second life as housemaid.
Here, we are back at the problem of the biography. Thornell, ultimately, disappoints. One feels cheated by her Clarice, who is a selfish person…sadly not unlike so many artists (think Picasso). Hers is not the generous art that the real Miss Beckett has left me, a lover of Beaumaris.
In photography, the equivalent of written biography is the portrait. There too, some practitioners intrude fiction, a fantasised version of the subject; a being nothing like them at all. An instance is the work of Delphine Diallo and Namsa Leuba in the in their upcoming show Notre Dame / Our Lady from October 3 at Boogie-Wall, 71-75 Shelton Street, Covent Garden, London.
Namsa Leuba exhibited February-May this year at Cairns Art Gallery here in Australia and her most recent project, Illusions, was created in Tahiti, inspired by the paintings of Paul Gauguin, with a nod to the lush kitsch ‘tropicana’ of Vladimir Tretchikoff. Leuba’s subjects in her fictional narratives are actually Tahitian “Mahu” (an effeminate man) or “rae rae” (transgender) but metamorphose into the ultra-feminine stereotype of the “vahine”. They become symbolic beyond the confines of any particular body or any individual biography.
Night Street, as good as it indeed is, presents a conundrum in biographical writing. One wonders if Thornell had left her subject unnamed and relied on the chance that she might be recognised as based on the life of Clarice Beckett, that we might not be left with a more robust work.