My father is an artist and art teacher, so I’ve been around art all my life. On the farm at the end of the day, or on weekends, Dad would paint in the laundry, until he built a studio. H and I would play there in the evenings, drawing on bits of cardboard that Dad didn’t need after cutting his mounts. Sometimes I would stand by his desk and watch him watercolours staining the page, and I loved the sound of the paints: cobalt blue, cadmium yellow, burnt umber.
All through my childhood I was dragged to country art shows, and once a year on our annual trip to Sydney (the only time, until I was about 12, that we ever saw a movie in a cinema) we went to the Art Gallery of NSW. For a small child from the country, escalators were the most novel thing ever, and once I was told off by a security guard for shouting and making a sprint for them in the gallery. At least, he told my parents, as I hadn’t heard him in my bid for vertical freedom, and he was embarrassed when they said I was deaf, although that was hardly his fault.
Despite all this exposure, I still can’t really read paintings the way I do books. I get frustrated with contemporary art and am probably pedestrian in my tastes. However, I was interested enough in art to enjoy Stephanie Radok’s An Opening: Twelve love stories about art. This non-fiction book, which was long listed for the Stella Prize and for the Kibble award, is divided into twelve essays, one for each month of the year, and each is about a particular topic. ‘The Presence of the Garden’, for example, details how, in Radok’s ‘old suburban house the presence of the garden is everywhere’ (18). This shifts to a meditation on one of artist Grace Cossington Smith’s interiors which, through a complex series of reflections, shows a glimpse of garden in the painting. Radok then moves back to her garden, then to a woodblock print by Hiroshige hanging in the her house, which ties back to the beginning of the essay, which describes how the print came into her family’s hands.
Cossington Smith’s painting is a useful analogy for Radok’s essays. Her thoughts segue from objects, to childhood memories, to meditations on art from Bosch to Indigenous painting, to ways of seeing, and then they return to previously-mentioned elements in an echo. There is much to take in and digest, as there is in Cossington Smith’s painting, and I simply didn’t have time to devote to the work, as it deserves. I did, however, hugely appreciate Radok’s style, and her inclusion of the personal in her discussions, such as the following description of a visit she made to Chinatown to buy some cloisonné: ‘On that same trip to Chinatown I also recall eating a clear fragrant soup full of semi-transparent wontons with pink prawns nestling inside them which gently brought me back to life when I was exhausted and lonely’ (104). By seeing her as a person, I felt more of a connection to her writing.
I also appreciated her discussions on Indigenous art, even though they failed to grab me as much as the more concrete details of her life, not least because she brought up some very interesting comments about belonging and indigeneity, such as the following:
How flexible is the idea of indigeneity? How is connection to place made and maintained? When I was a child indigenous peoples were invisible and talked about as if they were extinct and legendary like the dodo. Today it is impossible not to know that many if not all indigenous peoples have survived into the twenty-first century. In Australia there is a turning point at which you suddenly really see or feel the land for the first time as Aboriginal land … At this point you are enabled to see that much of Australia once held voices and movements very different from what it does now, and that it wasn’t that long ago. This is a point at which you see the past as still present, still living, still part of the future (133).
This turning point, for me, was while writing Entitlement, and I realised there were so many more feet that had traversed the land on which I had grown up, and the parks on the banks of the Brisbane River, and the streets that I cross to get to my local bookstore. All these pieces of ground had so much history, and it has been so easily disregarded.
Each chapter concludes with a mention of Radok and her dog on their walks. These were the sections I enjoyed most, probably because I like dogs, and also because the dog was a useful means of commentating on ways of looking. He draws Radok’s attention to things she wouldn’t have seen otherwise, such as ‘a dead, bearded dragon lizard body; its colour is the same as the white-grey earth, its scales so tiny they are like toast crumbs. (42). Radok refers to ways of looking often, and argues that we don’t necessarily need to know how to look at art to understand it, rather ‘it is the feeling they convey to the senses and the heart that is most important. Something is present and something is transmitted by colour, shape and texture, and this is the power of the work’ (92). These languages (of colour, shape and texture) are important not so much because they demonstrate technique, but ‘to communicate and to emulate sensation, to return us anew to the vividness of being alive’ (93). I’m not so sure that I am moved by art in this way. Although there are some of my father’s paintings that are just so beautiful in line, shape and colour (you can see them here), there are many other works I look at that don’t mean anything at all to me, and I wonder if Radok, as an artist, is unconsciously moved by art because she understands it and has an affinity with it. Does one need to have an art education to appreciate art, or are different people always moved by different things?
This book is like digging into your grandma’s collection of old jewellery and coming up with fistfuls of sparkling beads, the odd random coin, and smooth feathers. It’s eclectic, but begins to make sense when you contemplate it, as you would a painting in a gallery. However, this does take time, and meditation.
Book details: Radok, Stephanie. An Opening: twelve love stories about art. Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2012.
Borrowed from Brisbane City Council Library.
This is my 7th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.