ROSEMARY VALADON – A SENSUAL WORLD
…Valadon has never wavered in the compulsive calling of her talent.
At first you are struck by the grandeur, the lushness, the abundance of the work. Then your eye is drawn into a detail – the fold of a fabric, a bursting flowerbud, the fire of a red hot poker, a tiny nestling blue bird. Rosemary Valadon’s Four Seasons series covers the changing moods of the Hill End landscape that she has come to call home and is a crowning achievement in an artistic career that now feels as ripe as summer fruit.
The occasion of this retrospective of her work is an opportunity to reflect on the themes and inspirations that have crafted this significant and iconoclastic creative life. What has drawn her artist’s eye has been a mix of interest in the deconstruction of the domestic sphere and a subversion of the feminine. With a dogged determination to craft a life as a painter, Valadon has stayed in the visual arts – a sphere where women have been more often celebrated as object or muse rather than celebrated as artist or genius – for her entire adult life. Her parents supported her creative side through a childhood in suburban Sydney, Brisbane and then Melbourne but feared that the life of an artist would be a hard one for her. It is for most artists but Valadon has never wavered in the compulsive calling of her talent.
Her apprenticeship saw her study the Max Meldrum method in Melbourne, continually honing her craft as she raised her children, travelled to places such as Japan and Italy, and eventually returned to study at Sydney College of the Arts in 1981.
Valadon made her first significant mark on the Australian artistic landscape with a burst of recognition that came after her exploration of Greek and Minoan mythology and the role that women played in legend. After winning the Muswellbrook Art Prize and the Muswellbrook Drawing Prize in consecutive years in the late1980s, Valadon went on to win the Portia Geach Memorial Award in 1991. In the same year she won the Blake Religious Art Prize with Before the Fall (1991). Her depiction of Eve owes much to the classic nude but is surrounded by a still life interweaving a symbolic and sensual natural world replete with ominous slithering snakes.
This award winning work signalled significant themes that would become hallmarks in Valadon’s body of work – the all-encompassing power of the natural world, the rich symbolism of the objects, deep engagement with intellectual traditions and iconic storytelling, reinterpretation of stereotypes and archetypes of women and a respect of the classical artistic traditions.
It seems that there is also something subversive in a woman who expresses her femininity, her sensuality and her sexuality
Valadon’s Goddess series, of which Before the Fall forms a part, explored the subversiveness of deified women. As the goddess, she is an object to be adored and to act as the subject of male creativity but in Valadon’s hands is her own force of nature, a woman with her own agency and power. In Ruth Cracknell as the Sibyl (1995) and Frances Joseph as Gaia (1990) one can see how Valadon humanizes and personalises the mythic. She particularly takes women into nature in a way that pays homage as much to the pagan earth mother as it does to the Greek classical tradition.
True artists are always barometers of society and what Valadon says in her work about women, their power, their humour and their femininity is a very contemporary commentary on their place in today’s society.
Valadon returned to subversion and reinterpretation of female objectification years later and this time she found the source of her material not in classical mythology but in popular culture. In her Wicked Women series, she reclaimed the femme fatales of the pulp fiction crime novels using, as she had in her Goddess series, well known Australian women known for their strong opinions, their thwarting of convention. The danger in the images is not the guns or the knives but the women themselves. They gaze at you, demanding you meet their eye. As Tara Moss in Schooled to Kill (2012) languishes in her armchair, gun in hand, you pity the man who would seek to treat her as a mere object of lust.
It seems that there is also something subversive in a woman who expresses her femininity, her sensuality and her sexuality. The fascination with the female archetype reflects something of Rosemary’s own steely determination towards her work. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf looked through the books in the Reading Room of the British Museum and asked why so many were written by men about women and so few women had written any at all. She reflects and articulates the way in which society structures opportunity to favour men – they have the money, the education, the support – but creates barriers for women. She also observes that when women did write, they showed that they could write as well as men but that their work was often devalued because of the subject matter they chose. Men wrote about history and wars; women about matters related to families and the home. A value judgement about what was worthy and important further marginalised the work of women.
…it is in those shadows that we see the clever layering of the deeper underpinnings of Valadon’s work.
This essay, first published in 1929, still has resonance when reflecting on the way in which even today the subject matter chosen by women, especially if it is related to the domestic, is treated as less significant and as a result women artists, particularly those who are older, are more easily overlooked.
Valadon’s work sits neatly beside that of Grace Cossington Smith, Clarice Beckett and Margaret Preston. She has also reinterpreted a distinctly Australian femininity and domestic aesthetic. A large body of her work explores women’s portraiture, landscape, and the subject matter of domestic life – from still lifes of the family table to images of childhood and depictions of family relationships.
But this simple cataloguing of Valadon’s work misses many of the substantial themes. There is much warmth in her still life, the bright colours on a crowded table of delicate teacups and delicacies that wait to be shared. It is generous; it plays to our senses. But Autumn Evening under the Apricot Tree (2013) and Afternoon Delight (2009) say much more about the domestic sphere – the preparation, the nurturing, the time taken to prepare food, to nourish, the work in then packing away and cleaning. We only see the magical moment when it all comes together, the moment when the gift of hospitality is given but lying underneath is the time, care and attention to detail that show unacknowledged hard work and stoicism of women. Pay attention, she says, to what is under the surface. Valadon wants to warn us that there is always some danger, some darkness in the domestic space. Her depictions of childhood through fractured fairy tales owe as much to Hogarth, Jack Zipes and Paula Rego as they do to children’s storytelling. The ‘Girl and the Wolf’ and ‘Cinderella’ themed works say as much about the transition from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood as we search for our confidence, our sense of who we are. We dress up; we masquerade to find our true self amongst the images already fed us about what women should be. We explore the power we are finding we have but don’t know how to use yet.
It’s all in the mind (2001) also explores Valadon’s interest in the psychological. A young girl holds a doll, a figure of Freud with his signature cigar. The image is a response to Freud’s abandonment of his Seduction Theory after concluding that sexual trauma was so prevalent that it must be in the patient’s mind. The shadowy image, reflected on the wall behind the child, is the abandoned child. It is part childhood playfulness, part gothic horror. And it is in those shadows that we see the clever layering of the deeper underpinnings of Valadon’s work.
If our own lives follow seasons, one feels Valadon is bursting from blossom into full bloom.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was in the shift from the domestic subjects to that of the landscape of Hill End when the greatest lightness entered into Valadon’s work. Her residency there in 2003 marked an important development in her work. The Open Door (2004) shows a merging of the domestic with the landscape, a reintegration with the environment. In Nun’s Picnic (2003) there is serenity in the merging into the countryside, a sense of being grounded.
In joining the Hill End artistic tradition, Valadon’s work now sits with that of Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, Margaret Olley and Jean Bellette. But it is clear that the meditation with the landscape has been as much spiritual as it has been creative.
The Four Seasons series pay tribute to this and appear like an offering to the gods, a celebration of the cycles of nature, rebirth and renewal, one season turning into another, that provide the bounty necessary for life. Taken as inspiration from Valadon’s own garden, the produce has come from soil she has literally toiled and captures the dramatic changes in the ecology that means so much to her. In the richness and natural wealth of the triptychs one is reminded of the Dutch Masters, of Caravaggio, and of Claude Monet. But one is also reminded of the earth goddesses and pagan mythology.
If your eye is drawn across the sweep of the canvas, catching on detail and then moving again with the rhythm, it is not a coincidence.
Of the many ways in which Valadon’s work has become subversive, none is perhaps more so than her stubborn loyalty to painting. She chose a classical medium at a time when conceptual art, installation and multimedia were far more fashionable but she has remained faithful to it, honing her technique. Her technique is now perfected and her work resonates with the confidence of an artist who has mastery over her craft. If our own lives follow seasons, one feels Valadon is bursting from blossom into full bloom.
This retrospective gives long overdue recognition to one of our great female artists. One gets the feeling that while Valadon continues to stride ahead, remain focused on what attracts her curiosity and gives her pause for thought, she knows the rest of the world will catch up with her soon.
Professor Larissa Behrendt