Love, Loss & Intimacy

by **

Dear Dad

“Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert

This widely quoted, intensely subscribed, time-honoured aphorism seemed to have lost all credibility as I stepped out of Love, Loss & Intimacy –an exhibition that showcases a selection of drawings, paintings, sculpture, photographs and media works from the National Gallery of Victoria collection that shares the common theme.

From Pablo Picasso to Augustus John, Jacob Epstein to Edward Burne-Jones, the work of these artists seemed to have flourished within their wildly colourful personal lives and their creative energies nourished by anything but regular orderliness.

Picasso’s various affairs with Marie-Therese Walter, Dora Marr, Jacqueline Roque (whom he later took as his second wife) amongst many others while married to Olga Koklova were believed to have evoked emotional reactions that he harnessed into conceiving masterpieces. John’s open relationship with his wife allowed for his Bohemien lover, Dorelia, to be the subject of a stunning work. Similarly, Epstein’s liberal marital relationship with his wife bequeathed to posterity an enthralling sculpture of his model-lover Isobel Nicholas. And Burne-Jones’ scandalous obsession with his Greek model Maria Zambaco yielded some remarkably sensual drawings — these, besides his wife’s consequent love affair with his friend William Morris. And the vignettes go on.

Edward BURNE-JONES    Study for Cupid finding Psyche 1870

The long of the neck and groaning eyes lightly shut reflect the artist’s sensuous eye while the shadows highlight the linear bridge of the nose, delicate lips and slender jaw.

For all the sexual improprieties that appeared to dominate within the broader theme, the irregularities and dis-orderliness highlighted in the exhibition were not confined to extra-marital affairs — overt or clandestine. They extended to grief: Max Klinger’s sketch of his one-day old daughter who was soon taken from him and left in the care of a foster mother; fear: the media display “Conversations with the mother” in which Judith Wright eloquently expressed every mother’s worry of their children’s mortality; and insecurity: self-portrait of Vernon Ah Kee whose debilitating struggle with his disadvantaged aboriginal heritage was clearly etched on his furrowed brows and pain-stricken eyes.

(Image from Design Federation website)

Move gradually away from this monumental portrait and be impressed by how a senseless tangle of lines can  be transformed into a piercing stare.

Perhaps to lull visitors into sharing in the bond between the artists and their subjects — self and spouses, mothers and muses, daughters and fathers — the gallery hall is appropriately cosy and intimate, the lighting soft and warm, almost dim, and a few walls have been coated with a dusky shade of mauve. In the satiny silence — punctuated only by  the occasional whisper or the apologetic sole on timber floor — a hair-raising sound of chalk on paper scratches eerily through the air as if one of the early century artists is wielding his drawing tool right there in the same room. So extraordinary is each work of art, enlivened by the context against which they were born, one ponders every stroke or brush, shade or shadow and contemplates the competing emotions at their time of creation.

Admittedly, there are other marvellous exhibits borne not out of untidy passions or life-altering experiences but of regular living: James McNeill Whistler’s etchings of his nephews, William Holman Hunt’s portrait of his son, Rembrandt’s exquisite drawing of his mother and the twins’ — Gabriella and Silvana Mangano’s — celebration of their interdependence.

But the overwhelming impression that I took away with me was how some of the best creations were derived not from regular and orderly living but from temptations and longing, desire and passion, poignancy and pain. All of a sudden, Flaubert’s famous quotation seemed shallow and threadbare. Feeble. Hogwash.

Perturbed by the unreconciled messages, I felt compelled to make that second visit. From amidst the fog of the smouldering eyes and blinding clouds of anguish, I was determined to elicit some degree of sense and defend the profundity of Flaubert’s observation .

And this time I delved deeper into the narrative and chewed on the creation dates: many of the unimpeachable works were either created after a painful event, a period of crisis, momentary passion or before it i.e., outside of disorderliness.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Study of St Catherine, in which Elizabeth Siddal was his model, was completed in 1856 before the couple’s problematic marriage in 1860, the birth of their stillborn daughter and Siddal’s tragic death in 1862. At the time of the drawing, Siddal was a poet and painter in her own right. Rossetti’s depiction of her assertive poise and clasping of a paintbrush reflected his appreciation of her independence and talents during the study — before his interest for her dissipated that marked the onset of unhappy events.

Pia Johnson’s stunning photographs of herself and her sister, whose eyes articulate for themselves their mixed heritage, are select works from an oeuvre presumably compiled after the young artist — tormented by taunts from peers about her mother — had overcome a crisis of identity to now celebrate the magic of her hybrid descent.

Edvard Munch’s The kiss IV, completed in1902,  is a spectacular creation with its genesis in his six year affair with a married relation that ended in 1891. Through this work, he reminisced the engulfing passion, the helpless oblivion and the indecipherable merging of subject and artist.

Edvard MUNCH    The kiss IV (Kyss IV) 1902

An inexplicable mesh of faces, an explicit embrace, a fading milieu.

Despite what might appear to us as unconventional between Augustus John,  Jacob Epstein and their respective wives, their generous marital arrangements were ostensibly agreeable to them. The extent they seem irregular and disorderly to some of us might have been the extent they were regular and orderly to them.

I come away not only more convinced of Flaubert’s authority but reminded of another sensational adage:

Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Love, Loss & Intimacy

13th February – 25 July 2010

NGV International

Free Entry