Monday, 16 January 2012

Many Books Means Many Boxes....

The move is scheduled for this weekend - argh! My four bookcases measure - in total - two metres by four metres...that's eight square metres of books... To be honest, I'm not sure what's scarier - when you have to think in terms of all the boxes - to look at the square metre-age or how many actual books there are... Actually, I don't want to count them! I am very sure that the teenage boys who are likely going to be on my detail when we get to lugging stuff are going to be all too willing to let me know there are way too many!

On Saturday morning I read in Timepieces Modjeska's essay On Not Owning A Grace Cossington Smith. I think it's my favourite of the whole collection. She chronicles the journey that begins with discovering a small Cossington Smith painting in a Sotherby's catalogue through the budgetary wranglings to arrive at a sum that she could afford to pay, through the internal wranglings about whether it was necessary or not to actually OWN the painting, to the frustrating climax of missing out at auction and the aftermath of the let down... It struck a powerful chord for me the first time I read it. Like Modjeska, although not to the same degree, I'd immersed myself in Cossington Smith's life and paintings - Modjeska did it to write the dual biography, Stravinsky's Lunch, published in 2001. I did it for what was to be the first of a string of history papers about both Cossington Smith and Modjeska herself.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, sorting through one of the piles of papers that I am VERY good at accumulating (my dearly beloved despairs...), I found those history papers and read them through. The two papers specifically about Cossington Smith still stand up very well, and remind me why I like the essay as a genre - both to write and read. I took a big chance with both of them. One is an undergrad piece where Cossington Smith was on a list of women artists for a question that read 'Describe how .... brought Modernism to Australia'. I argued that she didn't. My point was, unlike her contemporaries - Dorrit Black and Margaret Preston who went overseas and then opened schools back in Australia to teach the new modern styles - Cossington Smith's struggle, all her life, was to create a visual language that would enable her to paint things as she saw them. It was a lonely struggle, as she was largely ignored by critics and patrons alike, so that when she was discovered late in her life by Daniel Thomas (then a junior curator at the Art Gallery of NSW), nearly her entire body of work was stacked in the garden shed at the family home in Turramurra. It was then that she was claimed as a great modernist - very much in hindsight.

The second of the papers was a massive leap of I don't know what on my part when I was doing post graduate study. There is often an option on a list of essay questions to 'negotiate your own topic'. Based on my experience of this paper, I have always suggested to my students that they think long and hard before they go down that track.  Studying Australian art history at post grad level, the women artists between the wars came up again, and I wanted to do more work on Cossington Smith, but there wasn't a question there I could use. Because I'd become fascinated by self-portraiture (and that's another very long story....) I decided that I'd like to analyse her great interiors as self portraits. Thing is, she's not in the paintings. Not any of them. They're paintings of the interiors in the family home, Cossington, including many of her bedroom. She had a big wardrobe with mirrors in the doors, and in some of them, given the angle of the mirror, logic argues that you should be able to see her in the reflection , but she's not there...

I still remember the somewhat amused look - that she couldn't quite mask - on my supervisor's face when she said to me, after grilling me for about half an hour on how I proposed to do this paper, "I shall enjoy reading your paper". She, of course, had a much better idea of what I'd bitten off than I did. I was THE hardest paper I've ever written - and I've written a 25,000 word thesis since! The paper was only 2,500 words - an absolute paucity of words, considering the ground I had to cover. I read piles of theory about self portraiture, I surrounded myself in reproductions of the paintings, I read everything I could get my hands on about that stage of Cossington Smith's wok and what she was trying to do - and then I took a deep breath and dived in.... It was SO hard. But, I survived, and I think I did her justice - I hope I did. And, on the bottom of the returned paper, my supervisor said she HAD enjoyed reading it!

I'm a bit preoccupied with the move, with the load at work, with the burden of my freelance assignments. The essays are short bites that I can read and enjoy in entirety. The two novels I'm reading are languishing because I'm finding that I'm too frustrated by the lack of time to settle in to enjoy them in little bits.

Rediscovering my own essays has been kind of fun. Kind of confronting too... But interesting!

And, the thing is, at the big church where I work, there are frescoes in the crypt painted by the Turramurra Painters - one of whom was Grace Cossington Smith. They're one of Sydney's best kept art secrets... So, I have a project awaiting me. Time for more research and another paper. I want a Cossington Smith? Of course I want a Cossington Smith. Am I likely to ever have a Cossington Smith? Very likely not. Modjeska's editor (I think) told her that a fairy penguin was richer than her at the time she was trying to buy the one in the Sotherby's auction - and that was when it was estimated at a possible $12,000-$16,000 (it went for $24,000). These days, the price tag would be so much higher, because people know who she is now, and what she's worth. And that's way more than I have!!

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