Jane Sullivan reviews 'Intrépide: Australian women artists in early twentieth-century France' by Clem Gorman and Therese Gorman

Art and Paris meant everything to Agnes Goodsir. ‘You must forgive my enthusiasm,’ she wrote. ‘Nothing else is of the smallest or faintest importance besides that.’ Goodsir was the Australian artist who painted the iconic portrait Girl with Cigarette, now in the Bendigo Art Gallery. It depicts a cool, sophisticated, free-spirited woman of the Parisian boulevards. When Goodsir created it, in 1925 or thereabouts, she had lived in Paris since the turn of the century. Apart from brief visits back to Australia, she stayed there until her death in 1939.

Goodsir is one of the better known of the twenty-eight artists whose careers are followed in this engaging and often enlightening book: other stars include Margaret Olley, Margaret Preston, and Stella Bowen.

The authors are a husband-and-wife team: Clem writes on the visual arts, and both are working on a biography of the Sydney artist Wendy Sharpe. The real strength of their research here is to uncover the history of many more Australian women artists working in France in the early twentieth century who are now little known, and in some cases forgotten. As the Gormans demonstrate, they deserve much wider recognition. This is a subject that resonates with me because of my own family history. Although my mother, Victoria Cowdroy, never made it to Paris, she was one of those forgotten women artists of the early twentieth century who have won belated attention from contemporary art scholars.

What were the twin attractions of art and Paris to these women, who all found this intoxicating combination every bit as important to their lives as Goodsir did? Before World War I, and then between the wars, the City of Light was the world capital of art. It had the best art schools and teachers, galleries and salons, and was the home of exciting new movements like Cubism and Modernism. An artist could rent a modest Left Bank atelier, albeit up many flights of stairs and often without running water, and pop out to the lively local cafés to network with mentors and peers, or simply to enjoy the heady bohemian atmosphere.

Margaret Cole, an English socialist politician, writer and poet, painted by Stella Bowen in 1944–45 (photograph via Wikimedia Commons)Margaret Cole, an English socialist politician, writer and poet, painted by Stella Bowen in 1944–45 (photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone expecting wild tales of louche women letting down their hair and dancing on tables will be disappointed. A few did embrace the bohemian life, but they were all there to work, and they took their work very seriously. Hilda Rix Nicholas, who went to Paris with her mother and sister, was a typical ‘decent, provincial Australian’; though her art developed and blossomed, she herself stayed that way.

Male artists were drawn to Paris, too, but a female pilgrim had far more obstacles in her path, which means that she truly deserved to be called intrepid, especially when she came from half a world away and from a background that didn’t value art as a calling for women.

Money was the main obstacle. Many of these women came from wealthy families who supported them, but not all. Marie Tuck, who spent fourteen years in France, saved the money she earned from ten years of teaching art in Australia until she had enough to travel to Paris. Then she cleaned the studio of Australian expatriate artist Rupert Bunny so that she could pay him to teach her.

Anne Dangar, a disciple of the Cubist painter Albert Gleizes, slaved away in the garden of an artists’ commune to earn her keep. She had little help from her rich family. The mother of her longtime friend Grace Crowley was proud of her daughter’s art until it started to look like a profession. When young Grace took a break from art school, mamma sacked the maid, expecting her daughter to perform her household duties.

Crowley was happy in Paris and embraced Cubism. Her career was just beginning when a family illness summoned her back to Australia. The illness was nowhere near as serious as had been made out. The authors speculate that the family threatened to cut off her allowance if she didn’t return.

Most of these women were single (and some, surely, were lesbians, though we know very little about their private lives). But was it any easier for those supported by husbands? The trials of Stella Bowen with her demanding and spectacularly unfaithful husband Ford Madox Ford have been well documented elsewhere, but she wasn’t the only woman to find marriage a mixed blessing, to say the least. Devoted as she was to her husband, Eric, Constance Stokes commented: ‘Any creative work is a difficult life for a woman if she is a wife and mother.’ Both Dora Meeson and Ethel Carrick were tireless in their promotion of their husbands’ artistic careers, at the expense of their own work.

Some women’s shy and self-effacing temperaments held them back from the kind of relentless self-promotion that a successful career often demands. Even so, their achievements, whether they followed a traditional path or broke away into Modernism, were astonishing. Those who returned to Australia introduced a parochial, backward, and sometimes wowserish culture to new ideas and techniques that they promoted through exhibitions, teaching, and their own example.

Inevitably, the question will be asked: were these women at least as good as their male counterparts in Paris? The authors are in no doubt, and their crusading spirit is infectious. While it is difficult to evaluate each individual artist’s work from the small number of colour reproductions in the book, I hope this text will be the start of a wider and deeper appreciation of what these artists did, and the many obstacles they overcame.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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