Contesting Modernism: Flowers, Portraits, Gum Trees: My Father and Me.
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
Art and life
(Speeches, lectures and essays)
Modernism (Criticism and interpretation)
Australian painting (Criticism and interpretation)
Art criticism (Speeches, lectures and essays)
|Publication:||Name: Hecate Publisher: Hecate Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Hecate Press ISSN: 0311-4198|
|Issue:||Date: May-Nov, 2009 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 1-2|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Contesting Modernism: Flowers, Portraits, Gum Trees: My Father and Me (Essay) Event Code: 290 Public affairs|
|Persons:||Named Person: Heysen, Nora|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: Australia Geographic Code: 8AUST Australia|
Nora Heysen's life (1911-2003) and art were intimately bound up with modernism. Initially this occurred through her upbringing in the Heysen household, where current directions in art were the staple of daily conversation and correspondence among family, friends and wider art circles. The most productive years of her career from the early 1930s to the mid 1960s coincide with a rich phase in the Australian inflection of modernism, while time overseas exposed her to international trends. She was spectacularly successful in breaking the glass ceiling by winning the Archibald Prize in 1939, the Melrose Prize in 1933 and again in 1941, and in being appointed an official war artist, along with Stella Bowen and Sybil Craig. (1) Yet Nora Heysen is not ranked as a leading Australian modernist. Moreover, she was never secure about her position in the Australian art world, and felt overshadowed by her father Hans Heysen (1877-1968). In one letter home in 1937, she described how in London she accepted an invitation to a sherry party, but 'on arriving I was introduced all round in a loud voice as the daughter of the famous Australian painter Hans Heysen--I felt like an exhibit.' (2) She was also a perpetual conduit for messages to her father, and it was only late in life she felt she had arrived as an artist in her own right.
The complexity of this career profile has, on the one hand, a gendered explanation which I will explore in this paper, but it also relates to agency and strategic positioning which I will similarly probe. This analysis draws on more recent understandings and expanded ideas of modernism which extend beyond formalist categories to embrace the intersections between gender, modernity and the city. (3)
Nora corresponded with her father on a regular basis and those letters provide an insight into how Hans Heysen oversaw his daughter's art education in the London years, and then how Nora negotiated her own modern style and professional career. He established a teaching dialogue, asking her to describe in detail what she was working on, and to send photographs of work completed so that he could offer his views and suggest improvements. This advice was expected and usually welcome.
These letters were written for private readers, although the notion of 'private' is elastic here because Nora's letters were read out to all assembled family, and given to family friends to be read. In turn, Nora, as an art school student in London, read and re-read her father's letters, which she called 'working letters' because they were mostly all about art. For the last few decades of her life, she knew that the letters he received from her were housed in the National Library, and not long before she died she agreed that her own letters would be placed there, too. So within her own lifetime, she was aware her letters would be read by a wider audience than her family and friends. In drawing on these letters of father and daughter, this paper will consider Nora's relationship with modernism as an art school student, her views on modern art, and her positioning as modernist along a spectrum of modernism.
For most of Nora's most productive years, her father was a giant in the Australian art world, working up to the time of his death in 1968. During his lifetime, he won the Wynne Prize for landscape painting nine times, and his art was acquired by all state collections. He was appointed an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 1945 and was Knighted in 1959, both honours for services to art. When Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1954, Hans, standing next to one of his signature gum tree paintings, was presented to her as an iconic 'Australian' artist. Yet his views on modern art were ambivalent, if not reactionary, even though his own Flinders Ranges landscapes such as The Land at Oratunga (1932), are modern in how he approaches landscape as a skeletal bony form, devoid of growth. His friends ranged from known conservatives like artist Lionel Lindsay, to progressives such as publisher Sydney Ure Smith and gallery director Louis McCubbin. Many, like him, were trustees of the state galleries, so they formed a powerful network. He supported, and was a member of, the short-lived, Menzies-driven Australian Academy of Art. This is the background that frames Nora Heysen, and it defines one side of the cultural world in which she moved. Another side of her is more bohemian: she moved to Sydney in 1938 and mixed in Kings Cross art circles. While a war artist, she formed a relationship with an already-married Robert Black, with whom she lived until his divorce came through in 1953, when they married.
When Nora moved to London in mid 1934, she was immediately confronted with British modernism. While working in Australia, she had not been entirely isolated from modern British artists like Stanley Spencer, because her father subscribed to London newspapers which featured his work, along with that of Augustus John and other eminent moderns. Also within the Heysen circle there were serious art collectors, so Nora herself had been brought up amid talk of contemporary British art. Nevertheless, her total immersion in a cosmopolitan city and its art scene transformed her work. (4) She communicated that change in her regular letters home to her parents (but, really, her father) and he as her first teacher advised her throughout.
The first visual statement of this transformation comes in a Self portrait, 1934. It was painted a few months after her family left England, having sailed with her to London to install her into the Central School of Art, and lodgings at Duke Street, Kensington. It is the only known self portrait where she shows herself from a wholly frontal view, and without any clues to her profession such as painting easels and brushes. (5) It is modern and visually arresting. She presents herself as a young woman (she was then 23 years of age) alone and facing the world head-on. It feels like a statement made at the beginning of a journey: she is unsure what lies ahead, but knows she must be self reliant and prove herself.
The brown jacket she is wearing underscores her aloneness; it seems to sit on her shoulders as if to suggest she is dressed in one of her few possessions, ready to confront the world. This is very different from the way she showed herself prior to leaving for London in another Self portrait, 1932, painted in Hahndorf. In this one she presents herself side-on in her studio, in a Vermeer-like interior complete with a Vermeer reproduction behind her, while the rich, brown velvety jacket suggests security and a quiet confidence in her chosen career path.
What happened to Nora Heysen in 1934 that prompted such a startling artistic response? She was developing a successful career in Adelaide but, like many artists and her own father some years earlier, she deliberately sought experience and tuition in a cultural centre. Her father went to Paris, she to London. (6) This well-trodden path involving travel and leaving behind one's local origins underpins the modernist experience of many in the literary and visual arts. As Caren Kaplan comments, 'through recent modernity at the very least, the idea of escape from the nation-state into the cosmopolitan polyglot city, underscores most ideologies of modernism.' (7) Indeed, when Hans Heysen returned home from London in late 1934, he wrote to Nora, 'Adelaide seems very tiny, strangely small, and provincial.' (8)
However, cosmopolitanism is more than immersion in a metropolitan culture; it requires 'an outlook of ... cultural openness.' (9) This attitude of complete receptivity to new ways lies at the heart of the struggle with modernism that Nora Heysen underwent while overseas and, as I will establish in this paper, it explains why she is positioned as she is. She learnt she had old ways to throw off, and she rapidly took advantage of London's art scene. She was a voracious theatre attendee and soaked up musical concerts, drama performances and films, commenting in one letter home that she had just seen her first talking picture. In art circles, she had moved away from comfortable and familiar environs, and as Iwona Blazwick comments, 'it is a paradox of the metropolis that its scale and heterogeneity can generate an experience both of unbearable invisibility and liberating anonymity; of alienating disconnectedness, indeed impotence; and of the possibility of unbounded creativity.' (10)
Nora was in this transitional space, open to new ways, but still in the process of finding herself. This is apparent from her reply to one of her brothers, who wrote asking about a body of work he thought was being assembled for an exhibition, to which she replied: 'I've never been further from the idea of an exhibition. My past life seems like a dream.' (11) Her father, while affirming that London was opening up a new world for her, reminded her that she was seeing this world 'with Ambleside [that is Hahndorf] as a background.' (12) This observation was doubtless meant with a kindly intent of providing reassurance from home, but it also carried with it the suggestion that new ideas were, in a sense, 'measured' against those at home.
Initially Nora was very lonely, and living by herself was quite an adjustment after life in a large, bustling family home. She called it that 'alone feeling', but more than loneliness pervades her modern Self portrait. Her teacher at the Central School, Bernard Meninsky (1891-1950)--who exhibited with the progressive New English Art Club and mixed with respected modern artists including Jacob Epstein, Lucien Freud and the Bloomsbury group--said that she had been taught incorrectly. (13) This struck at the core of her confidence, and caused her to question her father's tutelage and her Adelaide art school teaching, and she described this incident as 'the worst most damning criticism I've ever had.' (14) She reported home that Meninsky said that her 'drawing was lifeless, dull, superficial and the technique was like sandpaper. He couldn't have said anything more disheartening and my conceit went a mighty crash.' (15)
The harsh criticism was due to the fact that each approached drawing from a different perspective. Meninsky, she said, 'draws with a heavy line and square modelling, handling the pencil like a pen, whereas I draw with a single line and use shading to emphasise certain forms.' (16) Nora was unsure whether to follow her own instincts or take on board his advice. Her dilemma was, as she wrote home, 'he draws very well and I admire the solidity and movement he gets, but I don't want to draw like him.' In one letter she wrote, 'ever since then I have been very subdued and discouraged, but I suppose there's nothing for it but to keep on.' (17) She did adopt some of his suggestions, because the square modelling and sculptural solidity which were his trademark styles carried over into her 1934 Self portrait. Two weeks later, she had come to terms with his comments, and admitted: 'I think I will gain from his criticism, it hurts no-one to be pulled to pieces and thoroughly faulted.' Once Hans Heysen was back in Adelaide, he wrote reassuringly: 'don't get too disheartened by Meninsky's criticism of your drawing. I think the main object is to insist on the pupil searching for movement and life.' (18)
By early December, Nora was regaining her sense of self and, having decided she didn't particularly like her teacher's manner of drawing, wrote home, 'I'm not so dampened as I might be.' (19) However, those first few months of exposure to life in the metropolitan centre, and being receptive to what was around her, took some adjustment. Her father sensed this and wrote in February 1935, 'confidence is essential.' (20)
Her father was keenly interested in how his daughter was developing and, in a letter written on 22 March 1935, said: 'I often itch for a glimpse of your studio.' Quite possibly fearing she was experimenting too, he much advised her: 'at your present stage of development, colour after all is not of such importance as form and structure-never relinquish your hold on your search for structure.' (21) Even though Nora was searching for a modern style, her father's advice, that 'the germ of what you will eventually do in flower painting is already in your earlier studies,' (22) implies that he did not expect her to engage in a radical change in style. He saw her time in London as one of developing the qualities of 'tone, movement and atmosphere,' which had earlier eluded her. (23)
Nora found the geographical distance of London an advantage, though, in determining her own friends, knowing her parents might not approve. She had invited her Adelaide friend Evie, who was coming to London, to share her flat with her, and she arrived just before Christmas in 1934. It was a sensible move. Nora was lonely and together they could share costs. Her parents, however, did not see it that way, and her mother who was particularly concerned about this friendship, accused her of 'cupidity.' Class may have been an issue, and Nora was not permitted to ask Evie up to 'The Cedars', but it was more their fear of a close relationship with another woman which underpinned their reaction. Nora persevered and stuck by Evie despite her parents' views, and she features in several portraits done in the London years such as the very dreamy and intimate Portrait of Everton (Evie), 1936.
In addition to painting portraits, Nora had a passion for flower painting. This was inherited from her father, and the large garden of the family home, 'The Cedars', in the Adelaide Hills, where flowers were in plentiful supply. While flower painting conjures up images of art antithetical to modern art, it was a highly respectable modern subject which a number of British artists in the 1930s were approaching, including Jacob Epstein and Matthew Smith. Stanley Spencer's Sunflower, 1938, is typical of this new approach. (24) He presents flowers not as an elegantly arranged bunch as did Hans Heysen but, in borrowing from photography and in its cropped modern style, zooms in on a sunflower as a loaded erotic subject. Epstein painted his expressionist Lilies and Dahlias, both in 1936, in a similar way. Nora saw what the modern men were doing with flowers because their work was exhibited at Tooths' in Bond Street, which she regularly visited, yet she wrestled with painting flowers along different lines. The problem was that her model for flower painting was in part the more conventional pre-modern French artist Henri Fantin-Latour (1863-1904), whose work she saw in London's National Gallery. She wrote back enthusiastically to her father, also an accomplished realist flower painter, as she did in August 1935, about how she felt her painting did not measure up to Fantin:
Clearly Fantin represented the gold standard for Hans Heysen too, and in his letter of reply he commented that Fantin was the most perfect painter of flowers. (26)
Nora saw her time in London as a process of working out a modern painting style, without abandoning her admiration for Fantin, and in moving away from her former Adelaide approach of putting in as many flowers as she could manage into a composition. She wrote:
While she was working on developing these painterly qualities, the second jolt to developing an individual style came not from a modern artist like Meninsky, but from the conservative quarter: from her father's friend James Bateman, a Royal Academician. He criticised her recent painting, but Nora was able to defend herself as her letter home on 19 May 1936 shows:
Bateman, being a loyal friend of Hans Heysen, then wrote to him about how Nora was losing her way. Hans duly wrote to his daughter and, in his usual kindly fashion, said he understood it was quite natural to experiment, but that she would 'probably find on reflection that there is more than a grain of truth in what he says ... for Bateman's insistence on tone or tonal values is I feel very sound--particularly for a young painter--for tone is the substance and colour decorates it.' Her father added he had 'complete confidence in your stability and sanity of outlook.' (29)
Nora was being gently led back, first by a Royal Academician and then by her father, and there was little chance she would experiment with modern art too much, especially when the coded phrase 'sanity of outlook' was used. Sanity implied staying clear of ultra-modern ways, and was much used by Hans Heysen in letters to Norman and Lionel Lindsay to deplore trends in modern art.
However, Nora was already positioning herself as modern, and by September 1935 this extended to her choice of frames. She wrote home: 'I chose a very modern frame for the cornflowers of unpolished oak. It is an excellent frame for a modern work, simple and well made and excellent for a modern home ... I'll wonder what you think of it. Probably think I'm going modern. I want things simple.' (30) She was also experimenting with light and less clutter in her flower pieces, and thought them a big improvement on what she was painting before coming to London. She wrote:
Deep in experimentation with light, one month later, Nora met Orovida Pissarro. This proved to be another significant event along the path of modern style. Orovida, the daughter and grand-daughter respectively of French impressionist painters Lucien Pissarro and Camille Pissarro, felt burdened by her distinguished lineage and, in her search for self, abandoned the family name and their impressionist style and painted by her own given name. As Kristen Erickson observed, this very 'struggle for individuality and originality became central to Orovida's art and life.' (32)
This meeting was not an accident. It was contrived by Hans Heysen and came about because Nora, who had seen the artist's painting Native Motherhood with Magnolia on show in a London gallery, wrote to her father about it. This led to Hans Heysen writing to Orovida enquiring about purchasing the work, which he duly did. As Hans Heysen wrote to his daughter, 'a letter came this morning from Miss Pissarro ... she has asked you to tea with her. I am eagerly awaiting the results of the meeting ... somehow I have always felt she was an interesting person as well as a painter.' (33)
Of that meeting in October 1935, Nora wrote home, 'she showed me all her work, gave me coffee and discussed art--all terribly interesting to me.' Nora then rapidly returned the invitation by inviting Orovida to her studio to see her work. The advice, as with that from Meninsky, came as a shock:
Nora accepted the advice and went out and purchased new colours of 'white, cadmium, red and pale-ultramarine, vert compose, cobalt and crimson', and added in her letter to her father, 'it is amazing the depth and richness of colour that can be got without using brown or black.' (35) Those latter dark colours to which Nora refers, and of which Orovida disapproved, were the ones her father had taught her to use. Hans, however, supported his daughter's experimentation, writing: 'it is far better and educational to get a criticism from an out-spoken person--even if only partly right, than the flattering remarks of those who want to please.' His qualified support suggested that the new colours might be too modern. (36) By February 1936, Nora reported home that Miss Pissarro thought her work had improved, had 'more feeling in it, and was less slick and clever.' (37)
Nora, meanwhile, was continuing to develop a coded language in her self portraits that defined her as a modern artist and modern woman. She was guarded about her experimentation and in her letters rarely described what she conveyed of herself, other than to say she was a 'handy and inexpensive model to experiment on.' She was happy, however, to describe their painterly qualities, such as colour and composition, as her father had requested. (38) To mark her twenty-fifth birthday and her transition to 'womanhood', which she said had been hastened by 'living here by myself in London and making my own decisions,' Nora painted a Self portrait, 1936, of herself as an artist. She wrote home: 'I am doing myself in a blue smock against the wall and a part of my pink roses--the colour scheme is beautiful and I hope to make something good out of it.' (39) Her use of paint is looser, with broken areas of colour in her face and in the background. She explained she had taken Miss Pissarro's advice in this painting and used a higher key with no black or brown. Her palette, tipped forward for the viewer to inspect, shows her new colours on display: the subtext is that she has abandoned her early training at home. By February of that year, it is Miss Pissarro's advice that is valued rather than her father's, and Nora reported home that her new mentor, who could see improvement in her work, was 'partly condemning, partly encouraging,' and that 'she likes the self portrait, thinks it is far the best bit of painting I have ever done.' (40)
Another theme embedded in contesting modernism and running through the letters from father to daughter relates to the Hans Heysen ethic of the need to escape from the unhealthy city air to the clean country atmosphere, and the inspiration to be gained by working in 'honest' country environs: a chord Nora related to due to her own upbringing in rural Hahndorf. Every so often Nora and Evie would escape on a hiking trip to the English countryside, and her father always applauded such ventures. He wrote: 'I liked to hear in your last letter that you were out and away from London, into the fresh air! It is quite essential to do this often if you want to keep fit ... both mind and body must be aired up, so to speak, in fresh surroundings.' (41)
In the summer of 1936, Evie and Nora took a very basic 'shack', minus running water, and worked in simple environs for six weeks. While this rural impulse is one familiar to many modernists, Nora's motives were not those, but rather to tap the 'truth' of the countryside, and show how her negotiation of modernism was vacillating between what she was working out in the city, and what her father had taught her. As she wrote home, 'this primitive life has its little drawbacks, but for the most part it is grand to be under the sky again overlooking the distant hills and fields of waving grass.' (42) This ambivalence about the city versus the country runs though her London years, and affected her receptivity to the cosmopolitan ethos; she wrote home close to end of the venture: 'though cities have much to offer, my heart will always be in the country.' (43) This comment affirmed the values her father upheld, and points to her being divided over domestic imagery or the landscape, and echoes what she said a year earlier: 'I want to paint people, homely interiors, skies and trees and water and all that is living and vibrating around me.' (44)
By 1937, Nora once again appreciated the advantages of living and working in a cosmopolitan city in terms of 'the education and stimulation,' and announced in her letter home in January that she would not return to Australia until she could prove herself and find herself in London: 'I want to work out my life here ... I want to absorb as much as possible [and] to experiment to learn.' (45) She also wanted to exhibit in London. But five months later she had no money left, and decided to head back home. (46) She had worked at her painting constantly, moving from Central School to the Byam Shaw School under Ernest Jackson for more tuition in drawing, and she even employed models herself to draw from at home. Her last London self portrait Down and Out in London, 1937 (front cover), alludes to her impoverished state, and shows her in modest domestic environs perched on the kitchen bench, the stove close by and laundry hanging behind her. The luscious greens of her clothing and the calm, relaxed pose imply that she has found her painting style; her hand resting on her palette points to the modern colours she has employed in her painting, replete with areas of broken colour.
Living and working in a cosmopolitan city, and in the countryside, altered Nora's art and she developed a modern style. This is one aspect of modernism. Another, intrinsic to cosmopolitanism, is openness to all forms of modern art. The letters between father and daughter, however, show a mixed acceptance of new trends. Each week Nora visited London exhibitions and saw the work of most major British and French modern artists. Her father back in Adelaide subscribed to the Illustrated London News, and often the work she would describe was reproduced in the newspaper, which he would then comment on, so it was not uncommon for a dialogue to run through the letters about particular artists and their paintings. For instance, she described a painting, Cookham Lock, 1935, that McGregor had purchased for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and which she saw at Tooths' Gallery, as 'a clever bit of painting ... I think Spencer is the most original painter working here.' (47) While Stanley Spencer's modern work was praised, others were not. Dod Proctor was an up-and-coming artist whose paintings such as In a strange land, 1919, employed fauve colours but Nora wrote home, 'her work I hated it--it was pale purple and green and insipid and every picture whether flower or nude or landscape was the same sickly colour scheme'; to which Hans replied: 'Quite agree with you regarding Dod Proctor's productions and can't understand where she gained her reputation. I distinctly dislike her calm sense, from the little I have seen of her work.' (48)
Flower paintings too were judged by father and daughter on a more pre-modern model offered by the Fantins at the National Gallery, even though Nora herself was trying to forge a modern style that built on Fantin's approach. On seeing an exhibition of modern flower painting by Vanessa Bell, Augustus John and others, Nora wrote home: 'they made me feel sick, they were so crude and badly arranged and badly painted and messy in all ways. I have come to the conclusion that no-one can paint flowers here.' (49)
Modern sculpture too was viewed through a lens of a safe version of modernism. When Epstein was showing his controversial, oversized marble carving Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) in 1935 at Leicester Galleries, Nora sided with the establishment view rather than the avant-garde, and wrote home 'the thing was ludicrous and hideous and no-one could take it seriously for a moment.' (50) Hans reinforced his daughter's views, writing back of Epstein that 'it seems impossible that a man of his genius will commit himself to such lumpy atrocities,' and that 'the essence of the stone mason is to give monumental beauty of form and just proportions.' (51)
Nora was developing a modern style in her painting, but on a scale of modernism, she did not position herself as ultra-modern; whereas she considered Roy de Maistre, another Australian then in London who had cubist leanings, a 'rank modern.' (52) By April 1937, her perspective had broadened and she was more tolerant of abstraction. She wrote home about her reaction to a Picasso exhibition she saw as being unable to 'take the work seriously,' but she recognised that others did, commenting 'another man can come along with a intelligence and knowledge and find expression and meaning there which he finds satisfying and interesting. What strangely conflicting views there are about.' (53)
Even though Nora had developed a modern style, the more fundamental issue of embracing modern art across all its manifestations still eluded her. Her father's preference for impressionist and post-impressionist work had not made that possible, and maybe she felt such loyalty to his agenda of portraying the sunshine and vitality of the bush that she not could take this step.
Nora Heysen seemed set to have a stellar career; she had excellent mentoring from her father about how to handle dealers, what price to put on a painting and where to exhibit.
Her friend Orovida Pissarro, who served on the executive of the Women's International Art Club (WIAC), invited her to join that group, but Nora didn't take up the offer. (54) She said she didn't have work ready to submit, and would join later. (55) She seems not to have followed through, and appears to have been ambivalent about showing with them. (56) It would have given Nora exposure to an international audience, but she may not have been attracted to a woman-only venue, even though many who showed with the WIAC exhibited with non-women's groups as well. (57)
Nora returned home to 'The Cedars' in Hahndorf in 1937 a very different artist. Her father found her work too modern, and her parents disapproved of her friendship with Evie who came back with her. They relocated to Sydney in 1938, and Nora established a professional practice painting flowers and portrait commissions. She chose to show with the progressive Society of Artists run by her father's good friend Sydney Ure Smith, and mixed with artists in that circle like William Dobell, whom she knew in London, and Adrian Feint. Before long she was a regular Sunday lunch guest of James McGregor, her father's friend.
Art circles were so small that she was not able to distance herself very far from her father. When she won the Archibald Prize for her stunning portrait of Madame Elink Schuurman, 1938, her father's friends who were the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales were some of the judges. Then when she decided she would like to be appointed a war artist, she approached James McGregor and Sydney Urc Smith, who were well connected, and Louis McCubbin, who was on the appointments committee. (58) Her father's influential friends were close by, watching over her and, at times, assisting her. This is not to imply she did not win the Archibald Prize based on merit, or that she was not assertive (she had to be during her time as a war artist), but her father's network doubtless helped.
Her career choice to paint portraits and flowers, the latter in her negotiated modern style, kept her within a modernist ambit, the latter reflecting her focus on domestic space. Her White cacti, c. 1941 (Back cover), is one such work approached in a modern, somewhat asymmetrical and loose manner, but her flower pieces were not evenly modern. In others, like her Spring flowers, c.1956, she positioned herself on the fringes of, if not outside, modernism. She was aware of this, writing in 1951, 'I can't help myself painting flowers,' an admission that it was not a strategic career choice, because that genre, while well suited to modern style as in the work of Margaret Preston, could also be portrayed outside a modern framework. Her father's advice that she would never regret painting flowers for a living, and his reinforcement of Fantin as model, had set her on this quasi-modern trajectory.
Her portraits, however, remained modern in style, and because her father did not paint in that genre, but specialised in landscapes and was best known for his paintings of gum trees, they stood outside his influence. Her studies of mothers are some of her most enduring. Dedication, 1941, is one of this series which strips the saccharine glow off motherhood. Her portrayals of women in the armed services completed as a war artist have now assumed iconic status about women's contribution in wartime, and include the powerfully built Transport driver, Aircraftswoman Florence Miles, 1945, wielding the steering wheel of a heavy truck with ease. The rise of abstraction, though, in the 1950s and 1960s saw the genre of portraiture fall out of favour, and artists like Nora Heysen were temporarily bypassed.
Art circles were small in this era, and this Heysen duo, father and daughter, both showing in the same exhibition, was a familiar sight. They regularly exhibited together in Society of Artists shows, and at the Artists by Artists show in 1949. They even held a joint exhibition in 1963 in Millicent. This lack of separation clearly bothered Nora and, when interviewed for a profile story in the Age, she commented 'because my father is Hans Heysen, I don't know if I exist in my own right or not. I suppose I never will know now ... I know that people who want a Heysen and can't afford one of my father's pictures sometimes buy one of mine. Perhaps I should be grateful for that. I'm afraid I'm not.' (59) But issues of agency and strategic positioning must be considered. Her early acceptance of her father's limited sphere of modern art, and of his advice always to turn back to the old masters and to find truth in nature, meant that she took on a limited version of modern style, especially in her flower studies. In these, for all the early talk of light and atmosphere, they either stand on the fringes of modernism or outside it, whereas her portraits endure as modern. In these, she found a modern style that stood apart from how her father worked. Being the daughter of a famous male artist is a daunting challenge as Orovida found, and negotiating a position of a separate identity is not easy. Some succeed, others do not. Nora did, but only very late in life when her father's work had fallen out of fashion.
(1) Nora Heysen's appointment was approved at the same time as Stella Bowen's, in February 1943, but Nora took hers up first in October 1943. Sybil Craig was appointed in March 1945. Catherine Speck, Painting Ghosts: Australian Women Artists in Wartime, Melbourne: Craftsman House, 2004: 115-121. The Melrose prize, awarded by the Art Gallery of South Australia, is for the best work in portraiture.
(2) Nora Heysen letters to her parents, 14 April 1937, folder 149, Hans Heysen Papers, folder 32, MS 5073, National Library of Australia (NLA).
(3) See Whitney Chadwick and Tirza True Latimer (eds.), The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris between the Wars, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003: xxiii-xxi.
(4) Family friends and collectors included James McGregor, Trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Adelaide friends, the Barr Smiths.
(5) There may be a similar second self portrait; it is referred to in a letter by Nora to her parents on 13 March 1935. Alternatively, the artist may have signed and dated this latter and added the date of 1934 when it should have been 1935.
(6) Funds from the sales of Nora's solo exhibition in Adelaide in 1933 paid for much of her time in London, while the choice of London for an art school came from her mother Sallie.
(7) Caren Kaplan, Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996: 30.
(8) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 5 December 1934, Nora Heysen Papers, folder 32, MS 10041, National Library of Australia (NLA).
(9) Craig Calhoun, 'Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism', Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 14 (3), 2008: p. 442.
(10) Iwona Blazwick, Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, London: Tate Modern, 2001: 9.
(11) Nora Heysen to her parents, 17 December 1934, Hans Heysen Papers, folder 32, MS 5073, NIA.
(12) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 9 January 1935, folder 32, NLA MS 10041. During the First World War (1917), the name Hahndorf was changed to Ambleside, and only reverted to its German name in 1935.
(13) On Meninsky, see Ted Gott, Laurie Benson, Sophie Matthiesson, Modern Britain 1900-1960, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2007: 144-45; Lisa Tickner, Modern Life and Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000: 149, 159.
(14) Nora Heysen to her parents, 12 November 1934, folder 151, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NIA.
(15) Nora Heysen to her parents, 12 November 1934, folder 151, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA.
(16) This style is evident in Menisky's Standing Female Nude in a Landscape, c.1940-3, oil on canvas, Tate Britain; and Nude, 1945, Art Gallery of South Australia, oil on canvas.
(17) Nora Heysen to her parents, 12 November 1934, folder 151 1934, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NIA.
(18) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 26 December 1934, Nora Heysen papers, NLA MS 10041, folder 33.
(19) Nora Heysen to her parents, 8 December 1934, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 150.
(20) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 18 February 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NLA MS 10041, folder 37.
(21) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 2 April 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NLA MS 10041, folder 32.
(22) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 30 April 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NIA MS 10041, folder 37.
(23) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 30 April 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NIA MS 10041, folder 37.
(24) Richard Heathcote, 'Stanley Spencer,' in Ted Got-t, Laurie Benson, Sophie Matthiesson, Modern Britain 1900-1960, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2007: 162-5; Catherine Speck, 'Epstein in Australia: The Haywards Lead the Charge,' Epstein Symposium paper, Carrick Hill, SA, September 2008, p. 6.
(25) Nora Heysen to her parents, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NIA, 18 August 1935, folder 153.
(26) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 6 October 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NLA MS 10041, folder 32.
(27) Nora Heysen to her parents, Easter Sunday, 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 146.
(28) Nora Heysen to her parents, 19 May 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, folder 146
(29) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 21 June 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NLA MS 10041, folder 37.
(30) Nora Heysen to her parents, 1 September 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 149.
(31) Nora Heysen to her parents, 25 September 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 149,
(32) Kristen Erickson, 'The Art of Orovida: Looking beyond the Pissarro Family Legacy,' Women's Art Journal, Vol. 15 (2), 1994-5, P. 14.
(33) Hans Heysen to Nora, 10 November 1935, Nora Heysen papers, NLA MS 10041, folder 38.
(34) Nora Heysen to her parents, 30 October 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 147.
(35) Nora Heysen to her parents, 30 October 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 147.
(36) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 10 December 1935, Nora Heysen papers, MS 10041, NLA, folder 37.
(37) Nora Heysen to her parents, 4 February 1936, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 150.
(38) Nora Heysen to her parents, 7 January 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 153.
(39) Nora Heysen to her parents, 12 January 1936, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 148.
(40) Nora Heysen to her parents, 4 February 1936, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 150.
(41) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 22 March c.1935-6, Nora Heysen papers, MS 10041, NLA, folder 38.
(42) Nora Heysen to her parents, Tuesday 1936, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 154.
(43) Nora Heysen to her parents, 20 October 1936, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 154.
(44) Nora Heysen to her parents, Easter Sunday, 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 146.
(45) Nora Heysen to her parents, 7 January 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 153
(46) Nora Heysen to her parents, 'The money I have is not going to see me through ... this month I want to book my passage ... this being how I stand I will be called upon to beg yet again another loan from Daddy. My debts are mounting fast.--The first thing I will do when I get home is mount a show and pray that the people will buy,' 4 May 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 149.
(47) Nora Heysen to her parents, 18 Aug 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, Folder 153.
(48) Nora Heysen to her parents, 26 February 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 147.
(49) Nora Heysen to her parents, 4 May 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 149.
(50) Nora Heysen to her parents, 12 March 1935, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 146.
(51) Hans Heysen to Nora Heysen, 30 April 1935, Nora Heysen papers, MS 10041, NLA, folder 37.
(52) Nora Heysen to her parents, 14 April 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 37.
(53) Nora Heysen to her parents, 14 April 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 37.
(54) Orovida Pissarro served on the executive of the Women's International Art Club (WIAC) from 1927 to 1946. WIAC had a distinguished history, forming in Paris in 1900 as the Paris International Art Club, and its first British exhibition under its name was also held in 1900 at the Grafton Galleries. The Club had a 'foreign' membership section, and it held an annual exhibition until 1976, when it closed due to declining interest and the cost of hiring space: Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists, London: Routledge, 1995: 76-7; Women's International Art Club www.aim25.ac.uk/cats/55/6042.htm
(55) Nora Heysen to her parents, 19 February 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA.
(56) Nora Heysen to her parents, 26 February 1937, Hans Heysen Papers, MS 5073, NLA, folder 149.
(57) Other Australians and New Zealanders who exhibited with the WIAC include Frances Hodgkin, Edith Collier, Margaret Preston and Gladys Reynell.
(58) Nora Heysen, interviewed by the author, 15 September 1989.
(59) 'I don't know if I exist in my own right,' Age, 6 October 1967.
I have been painting a bunch of flowers mostly gladioli and a few daisies and some peonies we gathered in the country last week. It is a gay bunch. I am using various tonings of blue as a background and a pale yellow cloth on the table. It is almost finished. Yesterday I went into the National and had a good look at the Fantin flowers and when I came back I had a great desire to put my foot through all mine. He can envelop his flowers in atmosphere so beautifully, and although I try very hard to get atmosphere and unity into mine, I always seem to fail. (25)
I feel in sympathy with the impressionists who wanted to break away from all the old traditions and find a new way to express beauty in nature. I feel I am getting nearer to that. I ultimately want losing a little of my hitherto rather photographic outlook and getting more art and feeling into things. I feel freer and surer of myself and know what I want. (27)
I got a gruelling criticism from Bateman.... He thinks it lacks tone, that my technique is mechanical and that I'm trying to get light and vibration in the wrong way. All of which is very disheartening. But then he is biased against women painters and likes work that I don't like at all, so I cannot take it all as gospel truth. (28)
I have been busy painting a gay little bunch of anemones on the striped cloth. I had a happy time painting it. The light streamed all through the flowers making them quite ethereal ... I wonder, would you like the colour scheme and the way I have treated it? The flowers have more light and atmosphere in them than I have ever painted before. The background is all light, the cloth light with the few Polish stripes and the flowers are full of light. (31)
She came in like a bomb dropped out of the blue-She slated me right and left-She said my paintings were muddy and 50 years behind time and advised me to change my palette-She admitted that I could draw and had talent but that is all she allowed me. She thinks I use too much brown and black and yellow ochre and keep my colour too low in tone--I who pride myself on my flesh bright clean colour! You can imagine my surprise on hearing that--She hates yellow ochre, and I love it and use it in everything almost-that is where we disagreed. She likes the interior I have just finished, and thought it the best bit of work--I agree there. She gave me a list of colours, an entirely new palette-mostly of cadmiums, excluding ochre, black and browns. (34)
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