Daily Archives: February 28, 2020

‘Kathleen O’Connor of Paris’ by Amanda Curtin

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2018, 320 p.

Look again at the title: that little preposition ‘of‘ is important. Artist Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand; her family lived in Western Australia; she lived in Perth and Fremantle herself in old age, but she always saw herself as being “of” Paris. Paris was her artistic and spiritual home, and she was bound there by networks of friends and connections.  Drusilla Modjeska may have written about the sacrifice demanded of women artists in the 20th century in Stravinsky’s Lunch, but Kathleen O’Connor lived her artistic life very much on her own terms.

West Australian- based Amanda Curtin had written about Kathleen O’Connor previously. In 2011, the short story  ‘Paris bled into the Indian Ocean’ was published in a collection of Curtin’s  work. It was based on the legend that Kathleen O’Connor had returned to Australia in 1948, and enraged by the duty she had to pay to bring her own paintings back into the country, threw many of them into the ocean.  In the way that art does, this story and its evocative title spawned an art exhibition in 2014, where artist Jo Darvall responded with her own series of watery images.

As part of her research, Curtin was struck by photographs of Kathleen O’Connor taken at the age of 90 in 1967, where she glares defiantly at the photographer, her hair covered by a stylish scarf, just as the photograph on the front cover shows her in the 1920s.   Reading through a collection of letters to O’Connor held in the Battye Library in Perth, Curtin’s eye is drawn to a rather patronizing letter addressed to her, as a 36 year old woman resident in Europe, by John Winthrop Hackett, a highly respectable patriarch of Perth society,  “…what a brave girl you are to attempt to carve out you own destiny this way”.  Curtin snatches his put-down and brandishes it as an accolade, dubbing O’Connor  “Bravegirl”, a sobriquet she continues to deploy  throughout the book.

While she certainly broke with convention in remaining in Europe unchaperoned and making her own way in the Parisian art-scene, “Bravegirl” was facilitated by her family connections, even though it may not have seemed that way at times. She was the daughter of C. Y. O’Connor, the engineer who is best known for bringing water to the Western Australian Goldfields (fictionalized by Robert Drewe in The Drowner.) The Goldfields Pipeline was strongly criticized, probably prompting O’Connor’s suicide, but  the remaining O’Connor family stayed in Perth, and while not wealthy, did have entree into well-known families.  Compensation for C.Y. O’Connor’s death that the family received from the government helped to support Kathleen during her many years overseas.  However, she worked damned hard too, as seen in the huge number of paintings created during her career, now spread in private and public collections, and often re-named. The list of known exhibitions during Kathleen’s lifetime highlights her visibility, and she has been featured in a number of prominent exhibitions since her death.  And – I have to admit-  I had never heard of her.

Biographers often work hard to capture their subject’s childhood, but old age is often dismissed. Curtin has not baulked at following O’Connor’s life through to the end.O’Connor’s heart and identity might have been in Paris, but she spent many years as an older and increasingly frail woman in Western Australia.  ‘Bravegirl’ continued to paint, and while her world became smaller, she continued her interest in the art world.

The book is replete with pictures, including a series of colour illustrations in the middle of the volume.  I particularly liked the way that the works were located close to where they were discussed in the text, and she numbered the illustrations for easy reference. I was surprised by the muddied, ochred tones of her work, which to me speak more of a smoke-filled room in Europe, rather than any Australian connection.

Interestingly, the 733 footnotes at the back of the book are not divided by chapter – a rather curious approach that I have not seen used elsewhere. The footnotes reflect the deep research that Curtin has undertaken, spanning personal papers, newspapers, memoirs oral histories and interviews, as well as the secondary sources she has used to inform the context she provides so richly.

It’s not easy to know how to classify this book. My library shelves it with the Biographies, but it spills out of that category.  Curtin the author is very much present, and she often struggles again her fiction-writer sensibility, reminding herself that this is not fiction, and warning herself that she is embroidering and imagining. (It doesn’t stop her doing it, though). As with Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, this is a fiction writer wading through the waters of historical research.  Interlaced with her own reflections is  another rather oblique (and to my mind, unnecessary) set of reflections, set in the present day, as Curtin returns to Australia after farewelling a dying friend, probably the Debi to whom the book is dedicated.

I have mixed feelings about this amalgam of genres. When I first started writing my PhD, we were encouraged by some- not all- of our supervisors and other academics to be adventurous in our writing, and to break out of the conventions of thesis-writing (advice I did not follow, by the way). I have always admired the writing of historians in the ‘Melbourne School’  (Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening and more recently within the same tradition Tom Griffiths) and their combination of rigour and reflection.  I loved the biographer Richard Holmes’ Sidetracks and Footsteps:Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,  but some 20 years on, I’m wondering if the reflections of the biographer/ biography combination is becoming a little worn.  I, like all other historians, understand and also have felt the tedium, the intensity and the exhilaration of archive work, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang a book on, especially after so many other people have done so beforehand.

Nonetheless, I value this book highly for bringing Kathleen O’Connor to increased prominence. Even more, the writing and evocation of place and nuance of character in Curtin’s writing, tempts me to seek out her fictional work. There, she won’t have to resist imagination or constantly wrest her work from conjecture.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

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I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.