29 April 2017

Christina Stead - literary hero or forgotten Australian?

Author Christina Stead (1902–1983) left Australia in 1928 at 26. She embarked on a succ­ess­ful literary career with the publication of Seven Poor Men of Sydney and The Salzburg Tales, 1934. But the inter-war period was a difficult time to be an Australian writer. Censorship was rife, publishing houses was conservative, and pub­lishers were rarely interested in manuscripts emanating from the colonies. Stead’s first London publisher, Peter Davies, paid roy­al­ties irregularly, although he did champion her two novels in London and New York. Only Simon & Schuster and Harcourt Brace in New York were a bit more attuned to Stead’s House of All Nations and For Love Alone.

Stead became involved with the German/American writer, broker and Marxist polit­ic­al economist Wilhelm Blech aka William J Blake (1894–1968), with whom she trav­el­led to Spain in 1936, just in time for the Civil War (1936-9).

Stead always blamed her father David Stead in Sydney for “deforming” her and so she wrote no letters to him after she left Australia. The Man Who Loved Children, first modestly published in 1940, was the novel that en­shrined her rage and love. The novel was an autobio­gr­aph­ical study of a family dominated by an over­bearing and narcis­s­istic father. Alas it was the only book of Stead’s that I read, and I didn’t like it!

part of Christina Stead's published oeuvre

Angus & Robertson, Australia’s main publisher, declared Stead’s cosmopolitan novels too literary and un-Australian. So the couple preferred the Eastern European publishers who trans­lat­ed and prod­uced their novels in handsome editions, and paid proper royalties.

Like her heroine Teresa in For Love Alone (1944), Stead had wanted to escape the stifling parochialism of Australia. During WW2, she taught Workshop in the Novel at New York University. And after the war, she returned to London and mar­ried Bill Blake (1952).

All Australian authors who lived abroad for many years must have paid a hefty price for their cosmopolitanism and subject matter. Famous author Henry Hand­el Rich­ardson NEVER returned to Austral­ia. Mega-famous Patrick White did, but continued to be published primarily in London and New York. Stead, always scathing about the English class system, craved an Australian readership!

Overseas re­v­iews emerged in the Australian literary pages. Literary critic Nettie Palmer started writing to Stead, passing on Rebecca West’s praise of Seven Poor Men of Sydney. The women had been delegates to the first International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, a gathering of intellectuals against Fascism in 1935.
Christina Stead in her English study

Her letters
What was the chance of finding a box of letters in a Canberra base­ment that would shed new light on the work and life of Christina Stead? Under-read at home for much of her life, the great Australian writer created her own literary legend in letters and books. Her letters show Stead, living aboard from 1928-74, was highly regarded among influential literary circ­l­es, es­pecially in America.

The correspondence selected for A Web of Friend­ship, was preserved by family members, by agents and publishers, by writ­er­ly friends and acquaintances all over the world. Her best literary friendships were always with men. She and Blake first met American poet and critic Stanley Burnshaw in New York in 1933, at the office of the communist journal New Masses. Stead’s letters reflected the reciprocity that was so crucial between literary friends — they wrote a detailed analysis of the other’s work, sent each other advance copies, and raged about the treatment they received from ed­itors and critics. Many years later Burnshaw, then at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ensured the reissue in 1965 of The Man Who Loved Child­ren, and commissioned a great introduction by the critic Randall Jarrell. Burnshaw understood the difficulty of being an expatriate writer.

The Australian literary quarterlies Meanjin and Southerly, publishing occasional stories and commissioning critical articles, began building her public at home. These magazines, dependent on small amounts of support from universities and the Commonwealth Literary Fund, paid little money but often provided substantial editorial feedback.

Her correspondence was a map of an emerging Australian culture. Editors, writers and academics eg Nancy Keesing, Dymphna Cusack, Dorothy Green and Judah Waten sought her out whenever they were in London and fretted about the invisibility of her great opus. Their students were encouraged to read her; they included her in anth­ol­ogies of new Australian writing and nominated her for awards.

Prof of English Ronald G Geering first wrote to Stead early in 1960, acting as a go-between with Angus & Robertson to get paperback editions of her novels published in Australia. He visited her in London a few years later. His respect for her work was strong and her reliance on him grew, so eventually he became Stead’s literary trustee.

Not until after Blake died did Stead return to Australia in 1969, the recipient of a Australian National University arts fellowship. Her novels were largely out of print here, unattainable even in libraries. But she found herself an Official Personage, inter­viewed, photographed, feted everywhere. It was all a great strain, she said; she hated public speaking and drank too much.

During the loneliness after Bill’s death, it was Ron Geering who was left to collect the hundreds of letters she had written over decades. Stead had earlier destroyed all her drafts, most of her private papers and diaries from family and friends. Thank goodness they had kept hers. Even so, the correspondence of an American friend Harry Bloom was not found until 2007.

For years she has been known as the disappointed, insular woman of Aust­r­a­l­­­­ian literature, a novelist who plundered her friends for char­ac­ters, found it impossible to enjoy normal relationships and may have repressed her own sexuality. She saw herself as unlovable, craving passion, fearing rejection. So perhaps it was surprising that the enjoyment of reading the letters left by Stead got ever stronger, covering her passionate narratives and the country’s past. The letters’ awkward Aus­tralian core, their cosmop­olitan sensibility and their intelligent ferocity, drew Prof Geering and Hilary McPhee in.

published in 2017

The two main contenders for The Great Australian Novelist, Patrick White and Christina Stead, were almost unknown in Australia back in the day. White’s The Tree of Man did not appear until 1956 and  he didn't win The Nobel Prize in Literature until 1973. Christ­ina Stead was largely unpublished here till 1965. It was not until the 1970s that Australians embraced her nearly 20 novels and short-story collections. In 1974 she returned home to live and received the prestigious Patrick White Award for Literat­ure. Today Stead is regarded as one of Australia's finest novelists.

Readers will enjoy A Web of Friendship: Selected Letters 1928-1973, written by Christina Stead and edited by RG Geering in 1992. Thank you to Hilary McPhee for her new introduction to the Web of Friendship, published in 2017.

25 April 2017

My favourite Art Deco portraitist - Tamara Lempicka

Maria Gorska (1898-1980) was born into a very comfortable Russian family somewhere in the Empire. After her mother and father divorced, her grandmother sent her to boarding school in Lausanne. Maria wintered with grandma on the French Riviera and summered in St Petersburg with her Aunt Stephanie and her millionaire banker husband. Two nice lifestyle standards for the teenager to aim for!

In 1914, Maria spotted a handsome man at the Opera and decided she would marry him; it turned out to be a lawyer named Taduesz Lemp­icki (1888–1951). Two years later they were married in fashionable St Petersburg with her banker-uncle providing the dowry. As Lempicki had no money of his own, he was delighted to marry this young lass. A year later, Taduesz was arrested by the Bolsheviks; Tamara bravely had him freed, flashing the officials with her charms and using the help of the Swedish Consul. The re-united couple fled to Paris, along with many other upper class Russians escaping the Revolution.

In Paris and now called Tamara de Lempicka, the refugee studied art with Andre Lhote, and enrolled at Academie de la Grand Chaumiere. She became a well-known portrait painter with a distinctive Art Deco manner. Quintessentially French, Deco was the part of an exotic, sexy, and glam­orous Paris that epitomised Tamara's living and painting style. Unlike Picasso’s random art, Lempicka’s style would be seen as Soft Deco i.e novel, clean, elegant and exact.

Montmartre was becoming too expensive and too crowded, so most artists gradually moved south. Mont­parnasse had wide boulevards and great light. And there were still many small court­yards. Paris was the centre of the world for art creation and the ideal meeting place for the artists - Lempicka, Jacques Lipchitz, Tristan Tzara and Piet Mondrian were near neighbours, producing a unique and colourful style.

Young Woman in the Green Bugatti, 1925
private collection, Switzerland
Encouraged by necessity and the modern trends of people like designer Coco Chanel, the New Woman could drive a car herself. 

, 1925
The flat and square dresses of the 1920s provided an ideal canvas to display Art Deco taste. Skirts were shortened and the female figure became formless and androgynous - the waistline dropped to the hips and did not return to its natural position until the 1930s. Nylon, satin, silk and crepe were the most popular materials used to make shaped dresses. Short tubular dresses, long cigarette holders, cloche hats, bobbed hair, plucked eyebrows, bands of diam­ond brace­lets and long, hanging earrings were loved. Social­ly it was the age of the Flapper, a young woman who went to parties without a chaperone, smoked cigarettes and drove cars. Tamara Lempicka made it her own.

The female silhouette was slim, tall and elegant, ins­p­ired by Hollywood films. Girl In Green With Gloves 1929 (Musée National d'Art Moderne Paris) was probably de Lem­picka's most fam­ous painting that clearly epit­omised the Deco style and modernity. The fabric and hair combined sharp lines and flowing curves.

In Portrait of Madame M 1930 (private collection), Tamara demonstrated her fashionable sense, sleek and seductive. Some cur­v­es were back and they were emphasised by the use of fabrics cut on the bias. Early on hemlines dropped to just above the ankle and remain­ed there until WW2. Neck­lines were lowered; shoulders were squ­ared. Dress waists returned to the natural waistline. Fuller skirts were accentuated a small waist and min­imised the hips. Dress bodices were designed with inset pieces and yokes. Necklines were dr­amatic, with wide scallop-edged or ruff­l­ed collars. Skirts were also designed with great detail. Upper skirt yokes were used, design­ed in a v-shape. The skirt bottom often had pleats or gathers.

Girl In Green With Gloves 1929 
Musée National d'Art Moderne Paris

Hollywood and F. Scott Fitzgerald popularised sporty outfits for golf, ten­nis, swimming; similarly clothes and hats were designed for travelling in ships, trains or motoring in streamlined cars. With freedom of move­ment a priority, designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Patou, Madeleine Vionnet and Gab­riel­le Chanel created style for the modern wo­m­an in the fashion capital of the world, Paris.

Tamara de Lempicka definitely moved in smart and intellectual social circles! In the 1920s she became closely associated with some of my all-time favourite women in the inter-war literary set, especially Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. It probably didn’t matter to Tamara that her husband divorced her in 1931 in Paris.

Art Deco made great progress in fine arts and industrial designs, based on simple format, clean lines and viv­id colours. The improvement of technology, especially in industrial products like cars, ships and trains, emphasised stylised angular forms. Tamara de Lempicka found soul mates in fashion illustrator Erte, glass artist Rene Lalique and graphic designer Cassandre.
Portrait of Madame M, 1932
sold by Christie's New York in May 2009 for $6.13 million

Being a bisexual woman, de Lempicka's works reflected a glorification of the female form. From the pages of women's magazines to the salons and counters of emporiums to the set of design of Hollywood films, the Art Deco style was used to market modernity and elegance. Tamara sold her portrait art to the rich aristocracy of Paris and fetched huge prices. She painted portraits of writers, entert­ainers, artists, scientists and many of Eastern Europe's exiled nobility.

de Lempicka had 3 fashion imper­at­ives: simple cubist lines, as in Woman Wide Brimmed Hat 1934; clear, glowing colours; and a strong int­er­pretation of the female form. She was the demonstrator of the female form in 1930s Art Deco cloth­es - sleek and seductive, abstract-ish and modern.

de Lempicka herself received acclaim for her cool Garbo-esque beauty, her parties and love affairs. Her beauty and opinionated nature also increased her celebrity. Her style only declined as conservatism started to challenge the feminist advances she had championed. The Art Deco woman, that was once an object of desire, was seen to regress toward demeaning caricatures of unbridled sexuality.

In 1934 de Lempicka married Baron Raoul Huffner (1886–1961), one of her earliest and wealthiest patrons and a recent widower. When WW2 broke out, the couple moved to Beverly Hills in America, and she became the Favourite Artist of the Holly­wood Stars.

The Baron and Tamara moved to New York City in 1943, and continued painting in the old style for a while. Tamara decorated the apartment with the antiques she and the Baron had rescued from his Hungarian estate. And when the war was over, she reopened her famous Paris studio in the rue Mechain.

La Musicienne 1929
was at Scheringa Museum in Spanbroek

Tamara de Lem­picka was a true icon of the inter-war era, a woman of great beauty, great tal­ent and notorious sexual tastes. Her paintings were glossy, elegant, jazzy and chic like fashion photography in the magazines of the time. And better still, her successes as an artist funded a great hedonistic lifestyle. Her portraits of writers, entertainers, artists, scientists, industrialists and Eastern Europe's exiled nobility will last forever.

It took until 1966 for Musee des Arts Decoratifs to mount a commemorative exhibition in Paris, re-creating a serious interest in Art Deco. And Alain Blondel opened Galerie du Luxembourg and launched a major retrospective of Tamara de Lempicka. But it was too late in her career. In 1978 she moved to Mexico and died in 1980.

In 2009 masked gunmen stole art from a Dutch museum. Police said several robbers threatened a guard with a gun before making off with two paintings. The rob­bers a work by surrealist Salvador Dali. And they took La Musicienne 1929, a de Lempicka oil painting that showed a woman in a vivid blue dress playing a mandolin instrument. It had been a treasured painting.

22 April 2017

Guy Fawkes and his 12 Catholic co-conspirators

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”

Even though in childhood I really did not understand why we remember the infamous gunpowder plot, it was always my favourite night of the year. Every father in Australia, even those who normally did not organise fun activities with their children during the year, part­icipated in the bonfire building. Only in the late 1970s was the pub­lic sale of fireworks banned across Australia, to prevent injuries and bushfires. The ban ruined Guy Fawkes Night here.

Guy Fawkes Night aka Bonfire Night was and is the anniversary of the foiling of the Gun­powder Plot on 5th November 1605. The plot was centred around a group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries, furious at the persecution of their co-religionists in England. After 45 years of persecution during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the plotters had hoped their struggles would end once King James I took the throne in 1603. Certainly James was a Protestant, but the Catholics knew that James had had a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots. And James had himself  made informal overtures to Catholic powers like Spain, Savoy and Tuscany.

In 1603, in Hampton Court, James was known to be receiving some leading Catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. And the treaty negotiations between Spain, England and Flanders were concluded in Aug 1604, but there was still no mention of toleration for the English Catholics.

Disenchantment quickly with King James set inRobert Catesby and a group of his Catholic friends created a plan to kill the king, Prince of Wales and all the parliamentary ministers who had oppressed Catholics. The plotters wanted to blow up the Palace of West­minster during the state-opening of parliament when everyone would be there.

Guy Fawkes

Apart from the plot leader Robert Catesby, the other members of the group were Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen and John Grant. Each plotter had a specific role. For example the Wright brothers travelled to Holland to recruit Guy Fawkes. And they visited the King of Spain to ask for his support in the expected revolt that would follow the killing of King James I. Thomas Percy (who had contacts at the court of King James), hired a cellar beneath the House of Lords.

Sir Everard Digby and his servants would wait at the Red Lion Inn. As soon as he learned of the plot’s success, Catesby would leave London for the Midlands where the men would mastermind the next stage of the plot - the Catholic Rising. Thomas Percy helped fund the group and secured the leases to certain properties in London. When the plotters successfully kidnapped King James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Percy would remain in London and capture her brother, Prince Henry.

Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert, called in by the others to set the fuse. Fawkes was a Protestant Englishman who converted to Catholicism following his father’s death. He left England to join the mercenaries fighting for the Spanish against the Protestant Dutch. By renting a house near the palace, Fawkes could smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder under Westminster and prepared to blow it to oblivion. Modern scientists have calculated that the blast have obliterated an area 500 ms wide.

Towards the end of the planning, some of the plotters worried about killing parliamentarians who had actually supported Catholicism. But the scheme was only revealed when an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle (1575–1622) in the House of Lords, warning him not to go into Parliament. I am assuming the plotters did not want to kill Lord Monteagle since he was married into many Roman Catholic fam­il­ies, including being the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the plotters. In fact we need to note that ten of the plotters (except for Guy Fawkes, Sir Everard Digby and Thomas Bates) were all related to one another, either by means of blood or through marriage.

The timing of this warning to Lord Monteagle was perfect - Fawkes was caught red-handed in the cellars by the guards. After his cap­ture he was tortured till he gave up his fellow plotters. All of them died, either shot on the run OR put on trial for high treason, convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered in Jan 1606. As Fawkes awaited his punishment on the gallows, he leapt from the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, and broke his neck. Fawkes was only 35 when he died.

From left: Thomas Bates; Robert Wintour; Christopher Wright; John Wright; Thomas Percy; Guy Fawkes; Robert Catesby; Thomas Wintour
engraving, artist unknown, c1605

James gave thanks that God had delivered all of them. Then religious services, emotional sermons and bell ringing were heard across the country, celebrating England's deliverance by divine providence from a fiendish Catholic scheme.

Soon Bonfire Night was celebrated by the lighting of bon­fires, the burning of guys/effigies of Guy Fawkes and the explos­ion of fireworks. The celebration was designated in law by King James I a few months after the plot failed and remained on the statute books until 1859. Also by way of symbolic commemor­ation, the yeoman of the guard searches the (modern) cellars of the Houses of Parliament in time for the state-opening each November.

Only one memorial came as a shock to me. The 13-strong group of plotters included brothers John and Christopher Wright, from the village of Welwicks in Yorkshire. There is now a Coreten steel statue dedicated in 2013 to Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, John and Christopher Wright, installed at the village entrance near the Wright brothers’ home. It is very tall (2.4m)! Since the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot is still marked in Welwicks each year by Bonfire Night, the statue was probably built as a stark reminder of the reality of a historical specific event.

I have some last questions. Since the gunpowder plot of 1605 was seen as a dangerous challenge by the Catholic Church to Protestant Eng­land, why was the focus of the plotting limited to Guy Fawkes? Why was the role of the other 12 plotters largely excluded? And what about all the other well-connected people who aided the plotters with money, supplies and advice? Did the near-catastrophe in West­minster give some insight into how Catholics were suffering, leading to less severe penal laws against the practice of Cathol­icism in England? Does the reigning monarch only ent­er Parliament once a year even today, because of some lingering fear that remains since 1605?

To analyse the 13 major plotters and four other minor participants, see The Co-Conspirators.