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Friday, October 30, 2009

A portrait of the artist as a mother


I hoard my clean washing (note I say ‘my’, meaning ‘my family’s’, hmm…) till it reaches a pile big enough to justify a night spent folding it in front of the box — which in my case, not having a telly, means a DVD on the computer.

Having finished the first series of Mad Men — and since this week’s pile had grown to a size equalling a full feature-length movie (see how fun it can get?!) — I decided to watch Alice Neel, a haunting documentary about this extraordinary American painter.

Neel made portraits — of friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and ordinary people... anyone who crossed her radar — infused with emotional intensity, her sitters challenging the viewer with their direct gaze.

I actually wrote a long section about Neel in The Divided Heart, which was cut out in the final edit. Embarrassingly, my first draft of the book came in at over 120,000 words, more than double that requested by the publisher, so there was plenty of material left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak, much of it investigations into women artists I admire.

As a woman and single mother, Alice Neel (1900–1984) did it tough, but remained utterly dedicated to her art.

The question of whether her obsessive devotion to painting — and the instability that came with that — was to the detriment of her children becomes the unintentional focus of the film, which was made by her grandson, Andrew Neel.

Neel spent much of her life on welfare and was isolated as an artist until the late 1960s and 70s, when the women’s movement embraced her.

In the film she says: “I always felt in a sense that I didn’t have the right to paint because I had two sons and I had so many things that I should be doing and here I was painting.

“… I wanted everything. I didn’t want just art; I wanted everything. Everyone wants everything but then they have to get practical and settle for a certain amount. But maybe I was never that practical.”

Neel lost her first two children, one through death, the other taken from her for complex reasons. These traumas permeated her work, its themes of motherhood, loss and anxiety, for the rest of her career.

In the film, her remaining, adult children have a complex relationship with Neel — loving her as a mother and friend, full of admiration for her work, and yet both nursing hurts that have profoundly shaped them as people.

“I don’t like bohemian culture,” her now very right-wing son, Richard, says. “People are hurt by it. I was hurt by it. People who are engaged in it don’t care about, or feel responsible for, those who are around them, or who depend on them.”

Her second son, Hartley (now a doctor), was badly abused by one of Neel’s long-term partners, and Richard’s father, communist intellectual Sam Brody. It is not stated directly but is suggested that Neel ignored this abuse because she desperately needed Brody’s belief in her as an artist at a time when her work had fallen out of public and critical favour.

And yet, through all his sadness, Hartley has the insight to say: “If she had been satisfied with the paragon of what women were supposed to be in her era, she would have accomplished nothing. She might have been the greatest mother and housewife and all that… [but] this was the other side of the coin in terms of the way Alice saw things. She didn’t want that stuff.”

By the end of this, I tell you, my washing was neatly folded but my heart was a complete shambles.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cop this--apparently women can't write good sex


I realise this is veering into completely different territory, but I was just wondering if anyone took any notice of the recent debate fuelled by the comments of Kate Copstick, the new publisher of British magazine Erotic Review, who said women a not naturally good writers of erotic fiction?

You may have heard her talking to Ramona Koval and Linda Jaivin on Radio National’s Book Show a few months back.

Basically Copstick (what a name, eh?) said she doesn’t want her magazine “drowning in oestrogen”. That women “complicate, they add layers to sex, and sex in the Erotic Review I think is a beautiful, pure thing which deserves to be written about, celebrated for itself, and it doesn’t need a subtext, it doesn't even need a context.”

She also complained of young women who think they’re writing about sex but are actually writing about sexual politics, which is “not very sexy”.

“The Erotic Review is not there for women to have a go,” she told the BBC. “I don’t believe in equality, I believe in elitism. I want the very best writing and women are not passionately devoted to sex.”

What do others think about this? Surely it’s a bit scary that the owner of the world’s leading erotic journal has concluded that only men can write sex well.

Or is she just judging from the perspective of her predominantly male readership? (Maybe female readers would like a bit of context and subtext if she was interested in catering for them. After all, her target reader is "a dirty old man with two PhDs"...)

Surely some women are passionately devoted to sex (at least some of the time). And besides, when sex becomes “complicated” does it automatically cease being a beautiful thing?

Isn’t erotic fiction without any subtext or context really just porn? Albeit perhaps well-written, literary porn, as Copstick would argue.

I'm not really sure of my stance on this one, but I'm intrigued by this argument nonetheless...

Monday, October 12, 2009

The burden of time

Sorry that it’s been a while between posts. I have been on a family holiday. And I use that word advisedly. I mean, I do appreciate a change of scene and all, but ‘holiday with children’… more like shifting the whole shebang to somewhere with fewer distractions and less support.

At one point, I even found myself fantasising about having myself thrown in gaol for a couple of weeks (months?). I was thinking new exercise regime, learning a new language, perhaps even one of those creative writing courses they teach in prisons nowadays…

Sorry, I exaggerate (a little). The holidays were mostly fun. And how good to have a couple of weeks without the crazy school/kinder/work/drop-off/pick-up/make someone’s lunch/dinner routine. But, oh, how I miss a lazy morning in bed reading a book...

So back to reality. Or perhaps the reality we create.

In the post today, I received a review copy of the latest Buddhism for Mothers book, the somewhat awkwardly but straightforwardly titled Buddhism for Mothers of Schoolchildren by Sarah Napthali.

I have to admit I have not properly read the original book, though other mothers mention it in conversation all the time. But I took a quick peek at this new one, read the first line of the first chapter (titled ‘Stress’ — ha ha, why would that be?!) and think I have to read this book.

“Mothers of schoolchildren can have a tense relationship with time and, in some cases, an obsessive attachment to using it efficiently,” writes Napthali.

Isn’t this the wonderful thing about writing — someone else always manages to describe some emotion or thought or idea you believed was just your own particular neuroses, and suddenly you realise it’s a common, explainable feeling?

Tense would be putting it mildly, for me. I have a perverse relationship with time — almost as perverse as my relationship with housework (and very much related).

I now find myself regularly writing time as ‘TIME’. Sorry, I’m not yelling, exactly, but time has come to be one of those hugely loaded terms for me. One of those big words, like LOVE or MONEY.

As I wrote in The Divided Heart, I don’t think I even had a relationship with time before I had children. Now that every moment alone has to be bought, borrowed, begged or stolen, I feel like I’ve gone to the other extreme — unhealthily attached to making every minute count.

Which of course only becomes it’s own burden — because even when you’ve “decided just to relax” (how’s that for an oxymoron), you’ve still got the clock ticking in the back of your head.

Multi-tasking has become such a habit for me now that I find myself doing it obsessively at times when it is just not useful. For example, when trying to write — which would actually benefit from a bit of single-minded focus.

It can become a tad ridiculous when you find yourself trying to brush your teeth, make a phone call and do the dishes at the same time. And, no, unfortunately I am not making that up! It wasn't until the other person answered their phone that I realised it just wasn’t going to work.