THE BLAKE BOOK: Art, Religion and Spirituality in Australia

THE BLAKE PRIZE 2011 Winner ROSEMARY VALADON

Judges’ comment:‘Rosemary Valadon’s work appealed because it emphasised the ancient religious idea of the maternal, the fecund. She alone showed the continuity between pagan mythology (including Aboriginal) and the Judeo -Christian stories. She brought something new to the Prize…’


Before the Fall 1991
Oil on wood, 152cm tondo

I wanted to create an image of oneness, wholeness, self-sufficiency; and so I used the surrounding border  full of flowers, pomegranates, labrys – all female symbols.
Rosemary Valadon in letter to R.Crumlin
April 20, 2008.

Rosemary Valadon had begun her art studies in Melbourne in 1966 learning the Max Meldrum method of absolute faithfulness to what can be seen with the eye and then painted with a command of the tonal relationships which underlie colour and spatial organization.Valadon was a keen student and her subsequent paintings are intellectually satisfying, logical and visually stylish. She moved to Sydney and, in 1981 began undergraduate and graduate studies at the Sydney College of the Arts. She remembers the course as highly conceptual and weighted towards contemporary philosophy, and particularly towards feminist theory and practice. Elizabeth Grosz’s lectures captivated her, as did her enthusiasm for Greek and Minoan mythology and for the way the female body carries and reveals meaning.57 Valadon then went to Europe, and inevitably and significantly for her Blake entries, to Knossos, Crete, and Athens in 1991. Like Mann and many women artists of that decade, the liberating effect of mythology has never left her, or her work. In 1991 Valadon began planning for a major Goddess exhibition to be held in 1992. The first painting completed, Gaia, the earth Mother, won the Portia Geach Memorial Award.58

Her second painting for the Goddess series was of Demeter, the generous provider of harvests. Valadon renamed it Before the Fall and entered it into the Blake. The woman in the tondo is not the Eve of Genesis but the goddess from who sprang heaven and earth. ‘I wanted to create an image of oneness, wholeness, self sufficiency and used the surrounding border full of flowers, pomegranates, serpents, the Labrys, all female symbols. The feeling in the border is also of falling down, splitting apart, and an indication of the shift from female centred worship, to male centred worship.59 Valadon’s serpents do not belong to the Genesis story where the snake tempts the woman to evil and she then seduces the male. These snakes refer to the snakes in Cretan mythology who guard the sacred caves and are cared for and fed by priestesses. These snakes are symbols of regeneration, not harbingers of death. Before the Fall is Valadon’s view of paradise. It is a work of great optimism and a testimony to the goodness and healing powers of women.

The same delight spills over into all of Valadon’s mature works. She rarely works solely from imagination, but, true to that strand of the Meldrum philosophy, works from life models – people, fruit, plants, landscape. Margarita Georgiadis, artist and friend, modelled for Demeter in Before the Fall, but, given another context, it would be read as a superb, luscious portrait. In 1992 it took its place in what was essentially a portrait exhibition at the Blaxland galleries – portraits of well-known Australian women posed dramatically as Greek Goddesses. They are all without angst, but exotic, sensual and heroines of myth and story.

Into the Dark

Into the Dark 2008 Oil on Canvas

Valadon has entered the Blake more than seven times. Her last entry in 2007, Into the Dark, was a dramatic landscape from Hill End, the artists’ colony where she now lives. There is no sharp distinction now between what she sees as spiritual or religious. All her work lauds the whole of nature.

“Currently, I’m working on a show around the myth of Psyche and Eros.

I asked friends from Hill End to model.

We went to Bald Hill, the local lookout as the sun was setting

and tied Genevieve to a tree as Psyche was tied to the mountain top.

And the rains came, and the wind was howling and the landscape

was glorious – the feeling of being close to heaven.

You get that feeling when you are on

top of the world.

 Rosemary Valadon, in response to the question – “What are you working on now?” April 21, 2000


Towards Dusk 2008
137 x 183
Oil on canvas

Rosemary Crumlin OAM

Author

Melbourne 2011

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This excerpt is printed with the kind permission of the author. For further information on the book or the Blake Art prize, contact: [email protected]

Footnotes:
57 C.f. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies, Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Allen and Unwin, NSW, 1994. In Chapter 1, Refiguring Bodies, Grosz argues that the body can express the whole of a person’s relationship to self – subjectivity, interiority and depth. It was a powerful and for many women art students, including Rosemary Valadon, a life challenging and changing experience.
58 Valadon has been a finalist in many exhibitions such as the Sulman (2002, 2000, 2003) and the Portia Geach (2005, 2004, 2002, 2000).
59 R.Valadon, letter to author, April 20, 2008.
60 Rosemary Valadon in response to the question, “What are you working on now?” April 21, 2008