Unlike her male contemporaries, award-winning figurative artist Rosemary Valadon has never become aroused during sittings. She is, instead, beguiled by skin – not the feel, but the way in which it retains light and deploys shadow. Inspired by the erotic kitsch of the pulp fiction era, Wicked Women, Valadon’s latest take on the mythology of femininity, shows lots of skin. For two years, she presided over sittings at Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum with sixteen of Australia’s highest-profile women: strict, concise, intimidating. Adding to the general atmosphere of menace was QC and award-winning photographer Mark Tedeschi, who shot the sittings for the book that will accompany the exhibition. The subjects – ranging from law professor Larissa Behrendt to burlesque queen Imogen Kelly – quivered under spotlights in corsets, suspenders, and loose silk slips as Valadon, obscured by darkness, paced. “The flow of the female body is different from the male,” she notes. “The female is curved and folds in; the male is more rigid and constructed. Forget modesty. False eyelashes and red lipstick are great for a painter.”
In 2009, Valadon became the first artist-in-residence at the museum, where she gradually became obsessed by Sin City’s femmes fatales – the con-women, dopers, drinkers, murderers, thieves, and ladies of ill-repute. “Given my father’s predilection for crime novels – in particular, Raymond Chandler – and my mother in all those soft, taffeta dresses of the Fifties, this series was, I think, meant to be,” she explains. “I love combining the ultra-feminine style of the 1920s to 1950s with suggestive poses – and the playful and not so playful presence of guns, knives, and cigarettes. No ‘nice’ girls, then.”
Valadon, who describes her life as “not boring”, has always been attracted by wicked women. “But wickedness is not the same as dissolution,” she says. “Wickedness now is ‘naughty’ – a long way from its original meaning – ‘wicked’ women were once condemned as ‘evil’, temptresses who led men to their doom. These days, a lack of fear, curiosity, and refusal to obey certain rules are seen as attractive. Wickedness is an inventive, imaginative grabbing at life. And as for dissolute women – well, we all have off days.”
Author and controversial gossip columnist Ros Reines, who posed for The Pay-Off with Charles Waterstreet, the notorious barrister on whose exploits the TV series Rake was loosely based, has always secretly wished to be asked to pose for a portrait. “So part of my desire came true,” she laughs. “It was just a tad disconcerting that the artist saw me as a knife-wielding slut. But look on the bright side: at least she asked.” For his part, Waterstreet, depicted as struggling to escape through the trapdoor upon which the glamorous and calmly homicidal Reines waits, is “conscious of being wrinkled and old” and so asked Valadon to erase all evidence of age. “But I loved being sat on,” he adds.
Valadon, whose works have been shaped by the great French intellectuals – Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous – and their philosophy of difference, abhors homogenization.
“To me,” she says, “sexuality is about the mind and imagination and intimacy – the writings of Anaïs Nin, for example. I think there’s more sexual charge in The Piano – that glimpse of skin through the hole in the black stocking – than in any pornographic movie. Over-exaggerated, non-apologetic femaleness – sensuous, rustling fabrics; full skirts, fitted bodices and waists, is intensely sexy. You only have to look at the Mad Men ratings to see that. Sexual wickedness is all about suggestion and adventure, not porn.”
With sitters from almost every public sphere – Blanche d’Alpuget, Deborah Conway, Germaine Greer, Magda Szubanski, Rachel Ward, others – Valadon is a regular Archibald, Blake, Portia Geach and Sulman finalist, having won both the Blake Prize for Religious Art and the Portia Geach Prize for Portraiture in 1991. A favourite with private collectors around the world, her work is featured in numerous corporate and government collections, including those of Art Bank, BHP Billiton, the Macquarie University Art Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, and the Queensland Conservatorium of Music.
Part of the appeal is Valadon’s translation of the pagan into a twenty-first century idiom. In terms of perceptual prism and impact, this earthy sensibility has always been evident in her work, which can be described as beautiful only in its depictions of nature; Valadon’s women are deliberately carnal: slapped around by life, maybe, but still defiant.
Her idols are Monet (“for his capture of the light, his obsession with time and how it affected the subject”), Caravaggio (“drama, emotion, beauty, skin”), and, in particular, Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego (“for her stunning, dark, dark drawings of difficult issues – death, sex, relationships”), whose artfully unstudied compositions, textural depictions of flesh, and emotionally dislocated tableaux have clearly influenced her work. Greek and Minoan mythology, too – Valadon traveled to Athens, Crete, and Knossos in 1991 – and the great artists of Italy, where she lived, studied, and painted for a year.
Each portrait for Wicked Women took one to six months to complete. Steeping herself in the music of the era – Leonard Cohen, Julie London, Ultra-Lounge – Valadon spent “a long time” immersed in thought before she began sketching with chalk on canvas. At such times, she recalls, “there is nowhere I would rather have been.” She then squeezed mounds of oil paint onto the palette – five yellows, one white, three blues, one green, three reds, two violets – mixing them into “shades of warm and cool, light and dark”. Each painting is, she says, “a process of thousands of brush strokes, many steps to and from the canvas, a lot of sitting down staring at the canvas, and holding all the strokes and variations in your mind.” Her trances pivot on the rules of composition, and are fueled by “thousands of hours of observation” and a lust for intense hue.
Valadon’s dark eyes glitter. “Without wicked women,” she says, “life would be quieter, predictable, safe. Boundaries wouldn’t be pushed, and all the stories of revenge, lust and mayhem wouldn’t exist. The allure of the forbidden would be lost – the dark world of female enchantment.”
(An abridged version of this essay was published in Men’s Style Magazine, Spring 2012)