The Divine Burlesque

This survey exhibition traces the past 15 years of Rosemary Valadon's extraordinary work, ranging from her early portraits through to recent work that explores her interest in feminine rituals of identity.
We remember our childhood dolls but we don’t remember defacing them… In Freud’s 1901 essay “Forgetting Things” he provides the explanation, albeit an overly simplistic one, that forgetting is the summation of suppressed discordant memories. Moreover, it is the (sometimes) distant subconscious association of everyday elements that cause us to forget. If we are to believe this psychoanalysis - then within Rosemary Valadon’s paintings we are surely going to remember. It is this seminal displacement of evocative triggers, which are found in her paintings that audiences find effecting. They cause us to confront ourselves and they entice us to remember. This is not a new technique utilised by artists; however, it is the nature of her invitation that is so alarmingly seductive.

All in the Mind II, 2001

The exemplary pieces that carry this confrontational power are the artworks that include childlike self-portraits engaging in childlike activities. Dolls are generally a primary fetish across cultures, however, for children they are indicators of power: the owner is the master of the doll’s imaginary world. Acts of cruelty, petulance and experiments are unduly inflicted upon favoured toys. They are often also the first examples of early sexual exploration in children. Whether it is taking the dolls clothes off ‘just to see what is underneath’ or pulling its head off, all are exercises of power. Hence it is no surprise to find a petulant but sensuous “Rosemary” in child-form dangling a Freud doll by his head in All in the Mind II, 2001. Beguilingly charming as this image may seem, we are shocked to withdraw to the shadows of the canvas where the outstretched arm forms a tree with a body dangling from a branch. Underneath lays a prostrate naked child. The image is further offset by a nauseating green. For the viewer, the mind races to amass conclusions, none however are comforting.

Girl on a Swing 1999, oil on canvas

Girl on a Swing, 1999, further extends the artist’s exploration of the conflicts within feminine identity. Here we find a girl jubilant mid swing, feet and hands splayed in pleasure. Resplendent in gown and veils of red her bodice is pinched to expose a buxom cleavage. To balance her womanly exhilaration in the creases of shadows are two dolls as uncomfortable in posture as they are  in guise. To her top right is ‘insouciance’ passive in eye and pursed in lip. Bottom left is a less passive reminder of the triad of identities: dejected and judgemental is she of the luscious lipped character in red. There is little to guess at the power plays of the self that are going on in this image.

Girl & Wolf I pastel on stonehenge paper

The Girl and Wolf drawings are more obvious examples of the artist’s exploration of a young girl’s sexual identity. Girl and Wolf I, 2002, portrays a figure redolent of Paula Rego. Here a pubescent girl surrounded by bedroom toys claws a suited upside down wolf between her legs, simulating phallic masturbation. Eyes closed mid ecstasy, her hair is splayed like a Pre-Raphaelite, while the wolf is fervent in her muscular (but red nail painted) clasp. Girl and Wolf II, 2002, follows on, showing a spent wolf flaccid between her legs as the girl indolently readjusts her hair in a touching example of intimism. Valadon’s love of opera is obvious from this body of work that exhibits themed backdrops and dramatic characters. For this viewer they are less engaging than the surreal child-form studies, but that is just a matter of personal opinion. These figures are grown ups and are compelling for their returned gaze. However, these characters are also smug and cruel. In no way is their gaze inviting you into their world; in fact these women are telling you that you don’t fit in this frame.

      The Fairy Godmother comes to Visit 2003

So warm is the relationship between these characters and the reflective red glow of their environment that one feels slighted not to belong.The characters of The Fairy Godmother Comes to Visit, 2003, and You’d Look Pretty in Pink, 2004 have a menacing sexual tension between and within them: less obvious than the cross dressing women of the Whispers series, 2004, but ostracising the viewer all the same. Valadon explores acceptance and belonging throughout her entire body of work on display. She is cited within the exhibition catalogue as: “I am concerned with the universal desire to know and be known. In our search for the other, our craving for fulfilment –this elusive promise – we hunger for acceptance and transcendence.” The women in Valadon’s images certainly do not ask pardon for attainment of their desires. Bad Rose, 2004 and Offering, 1996 probably illustrate this point best.

Before the Fall 1991, oil on wood

In direct contrast is Valadon’s Blake Prize winning Before the Fall, 1991. Rather than Eve being depicted as sin incarnate, temptation and consequently the fall of Man, Valadon has successfully depicted the innocence of desire. Languorously sensual, Eve reminds us of the ordinariness of her needs. Her naive sexuality is chastened by the discreet drapery that falls from an arc within the tondo canvas. The luscious fruit, resplendent flora and open jawed serpent provide the lascivious tone to contrast with Valadon’s dreamy Eve. At the opening of this exhibition guest curator, Rod Pattenden, described the body of works as a “scratch ‘n’ sniff” experience. This is possibly the truest way of describing the lush and sensuous power of Valadon’s work. Not only does your scopophilia go into overdrive but also the olfactory and haptic senses are perplexingly ignited. How she manages to achieve this is bewildering but largely unquestioned as we follow one opulent delight after another in this engaging exhibition.

Lizzy Marshall

The Divine Burlesque,  review Caumac magazine Macquarie University Art Galley 6 March - 20 April 2006