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.

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