The 1950s was a post war era of conservatism, where full skirts, pearls and modest grace defined women, and pastel shades of tupperware and well-cut lawns defined suburban life. A return to fundamental values, family lifestyles and house-pride marked this epoch in Australian society. However, human nature dictates that every squeaky clean surface has an underbelly; a world of smoldering looks, abject desires and criminal motives.
The literary genre of pulp fiction epitomised this sexy, smoky underworld. These were stories of villainous characters, wanton vixens and dashing detectives who traipsed the moonlit streets, all with a touch of ironic wit and debonair style. Artist Rosemary Valadon’s recent body of work, Wicked Women, explores the role of ‘fast’ women during this era and relates it to current societal shifts by painting professional and creative twenty first century women in these pulp roles.
Within her wider practice of mythopoeic women and ominous fairy tales, this body of work mobilizes humour more deftly than ever before. With painting titles that correspond to pulp fiction novels, such as A Dame Called Murder, Gun Crazy and Deadly Wanton, Valadon has pooled her strengths in the making of these works: corporeal desire, psychological mystique, feminist commentary and the ever-fine line between sexual longing and the climax of life…death.
Her practice, whereby she asked the sitters to choose a pulp fiction cover pose, in which to be painted, was illuminating in surprising ways. The importance of role-playing, masquerades, sexual identity and secret desires were at the heart of the sitters’ choices, and might suggest to the viewer that a sensual and carnal perception of the self forms a substantial part of the female drive. No surprises there?
Many of the original pulp fiction covers offered women in provocative, solicitous or confrontational poses which could be understood as forms of sublimation. Crime novelist Tara Moss chose a red-corseted woman wielding a gun, Murder by the Book. This kind of get-back stare and femme fatale persona could be interpreted as a subconscious defense or manifestation of subliminal aggression. Skye Leckie, socialite and charity fund raiser chose a self-satisified woman in a come-hither pose, She Couldn’t Be Good. This wicked posture could be seen as the threshold of libidinal availability.
However, I suspect the choices are not particularly revealing of the sitters’ secret urges or masked desires. Contrarily, they create, even dictate, an added level of concealment. Choosing an alias is a further embellishment of identity, an added fanciful illusion of the self. Just another layer of human complexity. Libidinal desire and carnality, according to theorist Alphonso Lingis, who wrote about erotic imperatives, are intertwined with ideas of the conceal and the reveal: put on the mask, in order to take it off.
If the paintings are titillating to the male gaze, due to the fetishization of female seduction and violence, power and threat, then such a reaction is legitimate, if a little reductive. To a woman’s eye, by contrast, the desire to ‘dress-up’ or ‘play-act’ is another element of disguise, of female mystery. In other words, viewers won’t discover the real writer Tara Moss, the real Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies at UTS Larissa Behrendt in ‘Man Hunt,’ the real Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cuneen (scrutinised by NSW Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi from behind the wheel of a vintage black car). They will only discover another concealing veil, yet another obscuring persona.
Valadon’s painting of actor Essie Davis, aka Miss Fisher, strikes a particularly effective nexus between the innocence and seduction of the female condition. Essie, in green slip and bra, lying provocatively on her stomach on a bed, is the epitome of siren-like seduction. Her beauty and transportive naivité are coupled with the lure of the dangerous feminine predator in her pose, under the Pulp Fiction title, Vengeance is Mine.
Before I delve further into the complexities of female desire and Valadon’s titillating effects, there is the physical materiality of the paintings to consider; their incipient gaze, their magnetic presence and technical ambition. Rosemary Valadon has been painting the figure for thirty-odd years and has mastered the craft of chiaroscuro. The flesh of her figures have an iridescent glow. As she says, ‘there are hundreds of slight variations of cool and warm. The greens and pinks underneath are in constant opposition.’ This is achieved through a meticulous layering of oil paint, upon a primary acrylic coat of aubergine, ‘to bounce off and get depth.’ The pearly quality of the flesh is achieved through her precise modeling of the paint across the surface in multitudes of subtle tones.
Shadows of both flesh and surrounds, as theatrical tools, are created through the application of oppositional hues which create vibrancy and through the casting of illumination from low, stage light-like sources, in the tradition of Sickert or Degas. Valadon ‘doesn’t use black,’ she says, ‘so her shadows have life.’ More than life, they create energy and dynamism. She applies paint from dark to light, and through this process, she builds threatening and undisclosed elements. As with the novels that inspired this series, it is what she leaves hidden, what is not revealed, that creates the narrative power. This accentuates the atmosphere of performative theatre. These are scenes of dramatic spectacle.
Valadon is known for her mysterious, folkloric tales in paint, where mythologies are conjured, dark forms prowl or nymphs of the night lie sprawled. She is also known for her compulsion for the ritual of tea: tea cups and cakes have previously adopted the roles of characters in her paintings of intrigue. Her Wicked Women series is a natural development of these concepts and extends her psychological interest into ‘the feminine.’
Like the legend of Judith and Holofernes, Valadon’s Wicked Women characters are playing the role of the untrustworthy seductress. Judith used her feminine wiles to steal into the enemy camp of the army leader Holofernes. She seduced him with her beauty and charm and then slit his throat with his own scimitar, in order to save the Jewish people of Bethulia. The paradox of such archetypical myths, is that women who use flattery and sexuality to deceive dangerous men are castigated, despite these acts functioning as examples of morality and martyrdom, honour and courage. The ambiguity of feminine agency is relevant to the genre of 1950s pulp fiction. Women were portrayed, against the middle-class norm, as vixens, seducers, deceitful and untrustworthy women of a subculture. They were knife wielding, gun-toting women of masterful cunning and, whether they were defending or aggressing, were always powerful and intelligent. This constituted one of the first waves of feminism in western culture.
The question Valadon seems to ask us, through her Wicked Women portraits, is one of agency and vitality. Who holds the power? Who holds the gun, the knife…the paint brush?
Is Valadon creating an environment of empowerment or is she contributing to the aestheticization of women as debased objects of beauty and carnal lust?
Theorists Clément and Cixous contradict Freud’s theory, that women create fantasies of seductions which are linked to their guilt as daughters of sexual abusers, by drawing the analysis away from family roles and insinuations of incest. This seems sensible but perhaps Baudrillard, in his essay Seduction, has a more transparent understanding of these complexities, which can be found in Valadon’s work, as he tries to break down the binary oppositions of male and female gaze, and refers to the ‘seductive power of artifice over materiality, and thus the power of ‘the feminine’ (i.e.pleasing appearances) over ‘the masculine’ (the exigencies of production)… Seduction is transsexual.’ Or perhaps an even more coherent thesis would be to suggest that Valadon’s scenes of seduction are bisexual, appealing to both men and women.
Part of the answer to this complex mystery is the pleasure the sitters derived in the creation of the work. The passionate enthusiasm for the project can be seen in the women’s and men’s expressions and countenances in all Valadon’s preliminary drawings and smaller paintings, as well as the final works. This was a project of female initiative, rallying feminine pleasure, even though there are a number of men in supporting roles. Women in positions of authority and celebrity (from TV host Sonia Kruger to journalist Antonella Gambotto-Burke to the burgeoning industry of burlesque dance, represented by Imogen Kelly), applauded Valadon’s sexualised interpretations of female identity. These women are unashamed of their erotic relationships with others, a view or attitude which contradicts the ethos of 1950s Australia.
A final evaluation of Valadon’s work must allude to the intrinsic issue of death or imminent murder. In many of these works, the women are either protecting themselves against mortal injury or doling out a death sentence to a perpetrator. Although these scenarios are fictional, they can be interpreted as evocations of the death drive, closely connected in psycho-analysis with carnality. Feminist theorist Julia Kristeva says, ‘Sexuality …is a complex pattern of responses and meanings in the relations between…one articulate subject and another. Hence it is more than what is called erotic in pulp novels….Even the death instinct is a manifestation of sexuality when it subtends aggressive desires, desires to inflict pain on another person or on oneself (even to the point of death.)’
Kristeva’s ideas can be elaborated to suggest that any narcissism, in terms of love as a yearning for the lost other, rather than self-love, functions within itself. In other words, these images are not so much intended for a male or female gaze. They are intended as a celebration of alterity and awareness. Valadon is ever-aware of subliminal yearnings, for love, for sex and for death, but also of the variabilities of desire. And, there is one more basic urge, which Valadon employs in her fleshly, painterly evocations of womanhood, in her volatile mixes of complementary racy reds and devilish greens. That final urge, is humour: the will to laugh, from deep in the belly, at the multifarious nature of our knowing and being.