Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Olympia and her sisters

Urbino Venus ~ Titian ~ Uffizi, Florence

Further to my previous post, I re-read my own short story 'Olympia' about Manet's painting 'Olympia' to remind myself of how I'd done it.

I already knew, when I started writing, what I wanted to say about it, knew at least that it would have to incorporate or hint at the facts of the artist's life; his studio practice, the model herself, the clothes and language and manners of the era. I read a little Zola to tune my ear to the tone I wanted for the narration, and read one of those Eyewitness Guides which looked in some detail at the paints he used, the textures of canvas, the period during which he was painting this particular work. It helped me to realise how much Manet (like many artists) was borrowing from extant images, and how in this instance he was re-intepreting a classical Venus, and deliberately setting out to alter the effect of a female nude on the sensibilities of the viewer. (That was stuff I thought I knew already, but it helps to have a firm foundation on which to build a fiction, especially when writing about so famous a work of art.)

Because the story is narrated neither by the artist nor the model, I had to find a way to inform the less-informed listener (or reader) a little, without spelling it out so that the actual narrator (the studio cat) sounded intelligent, and of his time, but wasn't giving a lecture. Tricky. Here's one para of the story, to give a flavour of the result:

"Some years earlier [Manet] had painted a study of the Urbino Venus by Titian, and this he hunted out from an old portfolio, and studied as the basis for his composition. At first, he directed Victorine to lie with her left hand on her knee, the near leg drawn up, the fingers of her right hand toying with a twist of hair. But after one drawing, it was clear that this pose did not altogether please him. He tugged at his moustaches, scratched a brush through his beard, paced the room, stopping before the Titian copy. There, the Florentine courtesan lies languid on crumpled sheets with her head turned in coy invitation, a bunch of flowers dangles casually from her right hand, while her left, at the meeting of her thighs, alludes to the source of her power. At her feet lies curled a sleeping spaniel and, beyond, two serving women occupy themselves with items of clothing in a pillared hall."

If you'd like to read the rest of the story, it's in Furthermore

p.s. - I like these two paintings which also play with the notion of the classical Venus. Manet was himself influenced (as seen in his portrait of Zola) by Japanese art, so it's rather pleasing that a later Japanese artist was sufficiently influenced by Manet to attempt an Olympia, in a way which brings the two distinct styles into one painting. Of the Cezanne, I just love the playfulness, the dream effect of that plump woman on her cloud, and the nods to Titian again with the maid, the flower arrangements and the attentive dog, and the upended top hat casting its shadow on the couch.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Considering Victorine

'Considering Victorine' ~ Susie Maguire (c) painted by John Behm
This afternoon I was googling an artist - John Behm (in order to mention his work to another artist who lived, I thought, nearby) - and came suddenly upon an image of myself that he'd painted. It was a rather odd feeling. I haven't laid eyes on this picture for many years; it was bought soon after completion by my brother, Tim, who lent it to the Paintings in Hospitals scheme. It may possibly be illuminating a corridor somewhere in a Scottish hospital still, or it may be relegated to my brother's basement, swathed in bubble-wrap and propped against a wall. I have no idea.

It existed for me in memory only, until now - and this sudden visual prompt made me think about the usual things historical images of one's self do; who was I then, who am I now, how are the two related, what's changed since,. Also about ego, vanity, representation, the gaps between how one sees one's self and how one is seen by others. Those themes sometimes find their way into what I write, in fictional form.
I remember the experience of sitting for the portrait; the practical, physical circumstances and the internal, emotional ones. We'd been together for around 5 years, and split up about twelve months after this work was made.
I would go down to the studio for a couple of hours at a time, talking a little, but often quite happily not talking. At that time he, and half a dozen other visual artists, had colonised a semi-derelict jumble of old two-storey workshop buildings in a yard off a cobbled lane in Edinburgh's New Town (now knocked down and/or converted into flats, I believe). It was a long, dark, dusty, cold space, cluttered with skip-trophies, things to be mended or incorporated into sculptures or dragged to the next cheap-enough-to-rent work space, in the boot of the next last-legs car.

I sat there in a 1950s metal & red-leather chair found in a junk yard, wearing cotton leggings of an unlikely purplish colour, a soft black jersey held together with a late-Victorian butterfly-wing brooch, a black wool shawl draped round me in an attempt to avoid pneumonia. The light source on the right side was from the 6ft wooden door/window which could be opened to allow use of an industrial hoist mechanism. It might have been autumn, or spring, I can't remember precisely, but there's sunlight flooding in towards my left cheek. I can almost remember the cold/warm contrast of it.

I had forgotten until now that this painting had a title. 'Considering Victorine' alludes to Manet's famously provocative painting 'Olympia', for whom a woman called Victorine Meurent was the model (she also features in several other Manet paintings, but this is the one which outraged Bourgeois Parisians at the Salon in 1863). Hers is the shadow-image lying on the left side.

At the time 'my' Olympia portrait was made, John had been reading 'Alias Olympia', an investigation into Victorine's career, and an attempt by the author Eunice Lipton to rescue the model from the label of 'street player and prostitute who died in the gutter' which had been allotted her by male art historians with hard hearts & disdain for all demi-mondaines.

What does the Behm portrait of me say? One woman dreaming of another woman? An artist combining his vision of a fantasy model with a real model? An arrangement of colour in space with a good back-story for those who wish to explore it? I can't speak for the artist's intentions - I probably could have at the time but have forgotten now.

From the model's point of view, I can say that it was the 6th or 7th time I'd sat for a portrait (Fionna Carlisle, Tot Brill, Derek Reid, had also 'borrowed' me before, and a various photographers whose names I forget) and it was not unfamiliar to me to be the 'object of the gaze', with all that entails. This time, at least, I was comfortable with the role, and interested in the history of Manet's work with Victorine, and naturally very interested in the personal history between myself and the artist (which, like it or not, always permeates the finished work).
Self-consciousness at being the subject in focus is a curious thing. Can be intimidating, or empowering, and lots of other things besides. What was I actually thinking about, while ostensibly looking up from a book? What time is it? What will we have for supper? Did I pay that bill/make that haircut appointment/post that letter? When can I move, please?
What does the image say to the viewer? What does that conjunction of brushstrokes mean to an outside eye? The model looks thoughtful. Is it a finished work? No action, but there's drama in the colours, and it's a warm painting. The model has a direct but slightly inward gaze. Replicating the gaze of Victorine in Manet's painting? Ye-es, ish, but clothed. Guarded. So no, not like Manet's work, not an image designed to shock or outrage. What does it say about her? What does it say about the painter?

At the time John Behm was painting me in that pose, holding Eunice Lipton's book, I seem to remember he was thinking about entering it for a portrait award (don't know if he did, though.) He was also doing a large canvas with 9 or 12 assembled 'heads' of Victorine, in which he examined how she might have looked as she grew older - he copied her 'heads' from Manet's Woman With Parrot (1866) and The Railway (1872) and Street Singer (1862) and then used both my own and my mother's faces as templates for taking the imagined life/lives forwards. (I have no idea if that canvas still exists...).

Later, in 2001, I wrote an 'imagined life' story called 'Olympia' (subtitled 'la muse s'amuse', which nobody else seemed to appreciate as the witticism I thought it to be) for a series of BBC Radio 4 stories with the working title 'voices from behind the canvas'. It was an idea I'd proposed via one producer, which had then been handed on to another whom I didn't know, so that only (rather grudgingly, it seemed to me) after several had been commissioned, was I asked to write mine (a salutary lesson about being definite about owning your own ideas, instead of modestly and gratefully accepting crumbs, which I learnt the hard way, twice.)

Anyway, suffice it to say that my story was about the experience of artist Manet and model Victorine, in a Paris studio, during the process of that painting, narrated by the little black cat which stands at the foot of the bed. (If you're curious, you can find that story in my second collection, Furthermore.)

And there I'll leave it, for now - the mystery of the paintings and the story behind them, still lightly veiled.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Start as you mean to go on (and on and on)

I don't generally do New Year resolutions. Declarations of intent made at the darkest, coldest time of the year seem likely to be coloured by all kinds of emotional issues, and the arbitrary choice of 1st or 2nd January as the day when Everything Will Be Done Brilliantly From Now On is at the very least ambitious and at the worst the kind of thing that comes back to wave its finger in your face by the end the first week. Fate has a way of divining when you're occupied in a creative pursuit and coming along to scupper you, to test your faith and self belief and patience. Fate is a little bastard. (Do you really believe in Fate? Ed.)

However, I have made a start on re-engaging with my WIP despite the irritations and miseries of January and broken drains and a heap of other things too annoying to list. Over the weekend I set up the laptop (one I was given in September and on which I worked so fruitfully during my retreat), tinkered with the widgets that allowed me to connect it to the internet (purely so that I could download a second licensed version of Scrivener ) and spent yesterday making 1000 words of notes as to what was still to do in this not-quite-finished-really-rough-and-patchy-first-draft. It felt good. I was happy. Hollow laugh.

Fate (or whatever it is) must have known that and decided to offer me a test. (Yes, but what do you mean by Fate, exactly? Ed.)

This morning I discovered (you can probably work out how) that the cistern in my loo was broken. It's an old device, 1940s-ish, and the action of the handle operates a plunger type thing (rather technical language, don't you think? Ed.) which is supposed to be held in place by a metal pin which was not there when I moved in (aeons ago) and which has to be replaced every so often with a bent paperclip, until that rusts and the whole process starts again. (What, replace the cistern? Yes, yes, all in good time, when the next ship comes in with plenty of bullion...).  So I found a paperclip, mended that, then made a cup of tea and as I drank it I peered out of the bedroom window at the weather, opened it wide to let in some cool fresh air, and glanced down...to where a drain that was flooding the front garden of the tenement building  - and which was meant to have been cleared before Christmas (I never saw the workmen, was told by the Council they'd been and 'sorted' it. Ha.) - was doing so again.

Once you've seen a thing it's almost impossible to un-see it. Discuss.

So I growled a bit, fired up my desktop computer, opened the mail app, referred to previous correspondence on this matter, sent another message to the Bloke At The Council Property Department who'd been dealing with it (or said he had) and then naturally found myself answering other incoming emails, and notifications, and then - before I knew it - straying onto Ye Twitter. 

Free Will?  How d'you spell that? A-d-d-i-c-t-i-o-n? (Of course, this is why you were setting up the laptop, so you'd distance yourself from the lure of the internet, isn't it? Ed.)

Fatal mistake, you're muttering to yourself, fatal, never, ever, open email in the morning if you plan to write in the mornings. And you're right. I HAD marked out mornings in my diary as writing time. I HAD planned (not quite a resolution, but nearly) to spend each morning writing from now until 'The End'. I had every intention of doing that and relishing it.

Best laid plans of mice and women, blah blah.

All this put me in mind of a comment by a brilliant Catalan writer I met some years back, Jordi Punti. He described email as being like playing multiple games of chess. Each time someone moves a pawn and signals that to you, you go to the board and look at the pieces and move a piece of your own, and feel good that you're now setting the pace of the game; however, other players are also signalling moves and you have to go to other boards and examine those games and move pieces on those other boards, and by the time you've done that the earlier players will have responded to your move and moved another piece... and so it goes on. One damn thing after another.

Real Life is one damn thing after another.  (So is a lot of fiction, I would tentatively suggest. Ed.) If I did New Year Resolutions, I would resolve - no, less dramatically but with genuine commitment, I would make an effort - to push Reality aside for at least an hour in every day, so that Writing Would Come First. Before broken drains, cranky cisterns, emails about tax-returns, or - bloody hell - Twitter.

I'll tweet the link to this, in a moment. Then, when it's off my mind and out in the world, I'll turn off the desktop and attempt to return to work on the laptop. Don't think the irony is lost on me.

ps. Fuck you, Fate.