November 2009

Arts & Letters

Animating spirits

By Sebastian Smee
Janine Burke’s ‘Source: Nature’s Healing Role in Art and Writing’

Janine Burke’s Source (Allen & Unwin, 400pp; $55.00) is about the inspiration and sanctuary that artists have found in nature. It reads as a collection of eight mini-biographies that hinge on given periods in the subjects’ lives, with Burke’s focus swinging back and forth from childhood to death. Together, these narratives – about Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Karen Blixen, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (these two treated together in one chapter), Claude Monet, Ernest Hemingway and Emily Kame Kngwarreye – amount to an argument for nature’s healing power in art and writing. Though sincere, committed and thematically attractive, Source suffers from an unfortunate tendency towards questionable revisionism.

Burke’s choice of subjects tells its own story. She writes about heroines of the feminist movement, such as O’Keeffe, Blixen and Woolf, but also about modernism’s ultra-masculine types: Picasso, Pollock and Hemingway. In the chapters devoted to the latter category, a large part of the story is usually given over to a woman, some under-appreciated figure who plays an enabling role and is also creative in her own right: Picasso’s lover Françoise Gilot, for instance, or Pollock’s Lee Krasner. Throughout the book, in fact, everything feminine is cast as sustaining or healing; the feminine principle is also associated with nature, especially with the life-giving element of water.

The book begins with the assertion that “creativity is a place”. Burke’s interest is in artists who have been led “away from the city to the creation of a personal paradise”. This idea encourages her to see the artistic process as a return to a “lost and cherished childhood realm”.

Burke has interesting things to say about the particular struggles of women who have been absorbed into the artistic world, whether as independent artists or as the helpmeets of male artists. She writes fluently, with an attractive combination of personal commitment and, for the most part, sobriety. She makes good use, too, of the fact that she has visited all the places she talks about, from Hemingway’s Key West to Monet’s Giverny and Emily’s Utopia. But in both its conception and crucial aspects of its execution, Source is dreadfully tendentious. It combines calculated popular appeal with a potpourri of untested academic clichés taken from everywhere, including Freud and Jung, environmentalism, feminism, Indigenous studies and even astrology.

Burke is best known for her extensive writings about the Heide circle of artists in Melbourne, and she acknowledges that her long involvement with Heide – the place as well as the phenomenon – has helped to cultivate the ideas that form the basis of Source. Her last book, The Gods of Freud (2006), was about Sigmund Freud’s private collection of antiquities, and so it is that Freud plays a major role in Burke’s thinking about childhood, place and relations between the sexes.

She wants to see nature as an animating force – not as “static, remote and closed” but as “dynamic, intimate and responsive”. That’s nicely put. And yet artists since the beginning of time have been channelling nature’s powers. The bias towards the urban, which Burke wants to disdain, simply doesn’t exist. In fact, although one occasionally finds artists (such as Degas) who reflexively buck against the tendency to sentimentalise nature (he once called for a “special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature”), it’s hard to think of a single artist who has actually viewed nature as “static, remote and closed”.

Never mind. One wants to know what Burke will have to say about the great subject of nature as it affected the great artists she has chosen. In the case of Georgia O’Keeffe, we are treated to a tale that deftly conveys the contradictions inherent in O’Keeffe’s personality: her peculiar combination of deep vulnerability and stubborn independence. O’Keeffe had, like Pollock, a peripatetic childhood and, later in life, a gruelling level of fame. She had a tendency, we are told, to use illness “to escape … intolerable situation[s]” and, for her, the healing process inevitably involved a “flight into nature”. Thus, she ended up in the New Mexican desert where, writes Burke, “after a lifetime of moves and personal disappointments, O’Keeffe claimed her soul’s domain”.

The chapter on Picasso also focuses on a sanctuary discovered later in life – in this case the Côte d’Azur, where Picasso settled in the late 1940s. Burke’s focus is on Picasso’s spell as a groundbreaking potter at Vallauris, a refreshingly unorthodox choice. Or so it appears, until you see how neatly – how almost cutely – it fits Burke’s overarching idea.

After a passage that discusses Picasso’s clay vessels as an “homage to Françoise [Gilot], to the pleasures of domesticity he enjoyed with her,” Burke quotes Luce Irigaray, the feminist academic, asserting that “the female sex (organ) is … vessel … a container for man’s sex (organ)”. This notion, which is scarcely refutable, dovetails with another Irigaray concept from the previous chapter, on O’Keeffe, where we are told that “the female body all too often becomes a place for man rather than a place enjoyed by woman for itself and on its own terms. The woman’s body is the man’s home, his idea of home.”

All this is fine, as far as it goes. But how far is that? Quotes cherry-picked from philosophers and theorists have a habit of losing their efficacy in the specific and unique context of an individual biography. Here, the Irigaray references feel faddish (or would have in the early 1990s) and rather glib. When we are told – as if it meant something – that O’Keeffe’s lover, Alfred Stieglitz, was born under the sign of Capricorn and that, “like Monet”, Picasso’s “astrological sign was Scorpio whose element is water and associated with intrigue, drama, sexual passion and a chilly ability to remain detached”, we may be forgiven for wondering whether Burke is having us on.

It’s a pity, because there’s a great deal in these brief accounts that is well organised, well told and involving. Burke’s treatment, for instance, of Karen Blixen’s struggle for sanctuary – a place that would unite “her geographies of conflicted desire” – and of Pollock’s long winters with Krasner at Springs, in East Hampton, are very moving. In the case of Pollock, Burke claims to break new ground “contextualising” the “links between nature, mysticism and Native American art” in his work. One might be inclined to go along with the claim if there were not so much else in the book that is egregiously overplayed.

When we get to the chapter on Monet’s later period at Giverny, we are thrust into an unlikely melodrama about Monet’s relationship with his stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschedé. Blanche, who was the daughter of Monet’s second wife, first met Monet when she was 11. She began painting alongside him when she was 16 and continued to do so for many years, eventually turning away from her own work to help him with his late, great waterlily paintings. The question of how much she helped him (did she, for instance – as Monet’s friend, the French statesman Georges Clemenceau claimed – prepare his grounds for him, or are her own steadfast denials to be believed?) is a legitimate one. But Burke is mischievous when, after characterising Monet’s private life as a series of “bold moves, scandalous liaisons and subterfuge,” she says: “While none of that means Monet seduced Blanche, it indicates that where a desired female was concerned, Monet’s ardour could make him tenacious, stealthy and strategic.” Burke continues, with a biased wink, “Whatever Monet’s relations with Blanche, they were shaped by an attraction that Portrait of Blanche Hoschedé registers.”

This is all pretty feeble stuff. And this chapter is not strengthened by Burke’s attempts at “close readings” of Monet’s portraits of his stepdaughter. Of the red dress worn by Blanche in Blanche Hoschedé Painting, she asks, “Did Blanche dress in this extravagant costume for a plein air painting trip, or did Monet imaginatively clothe her in red, the colour of passion, not only to create a vibrant contrast with the green grass, but to symbolically denote his feelings?”

For a definitive answer, one could presumably consult the stars.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

@SebastianSmee

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