“A waste of bloody money! And it’s not even Australian” [Australian= Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin et.al.] !!” The purchase of Blue Poles by the National Gallery of Australia for $1.3 million dollars in 1973 was met with derision and controversy right from the start. Although the Whitlam government merely approved the purchase (rather than purchasing it in their own right), it came to be seen by conservatives as emblematic of the Whitlam government’s profligacy and pretension. It’s almost impossible for someone of my age to look at it without remembering the controversy. When I finally got to see it, decades after its purchase, I was surprised by how large it was, and that the blue poles were not really integrated into the painting but rather laid across it. Nonetheless, no trip to the National Gallery would be complete without popping in to see Blue Poles- and I will certainly go back to see it again having read this book. And profligacy- snort!- the painting has appreciated in value many times over.
This small novella ‘Night Blue’ interrogates the idea that a painting can be seen as something separate from its creator. Presented in three parts, Parts I and III are told by Blue Poles the painting itself as narrator- something that requires the reader to suspend disbelief and cynicism. It is, as Yes Minister would say, a “courageous” narrative decision. Part II is told by Alyssa, an academic art historian, who many years earlier had done some conservation work on Blue Poles. In the wake of failure of IVF -something she was ambivalent about in the first place- she decided to undertake a PhD looking at the way that women had been sidelined in Abstract Expressionism, as exemplified by Pollock’s relationship with Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. This sidelining of female artists, of course, is an old story (see, for example Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch), exacerbated further by Pollock’s violence and self-centredness. Does ‘cancel culture’ extend to paintings? Does Picasso’s notorious personal life make his work unacceptable? Does Pollock’s? I must admit that I found this second part of the book rather unsatisfactory, although it did work as vehicle by which the author could work in the factual information about the painting.
It is common enough for a non-fiction writer to use an inanimate object as the lens through which to shape their narratives, but it is less common for a fictional writer to do so. Was she successful? Not completely. At times, I found myself holding my breath as I almost gave in to it, but then my more logical part of my brain would kick in and my credence would ebb away.
The book is beautifully written, and almost against my will I learned a great deal about Blue Poles and its creation. It is bold and imaginative, but it just didn’t quite work for me.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: purchased e-book. Read for Ivanhoe Reading Circle.
Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers thought very highly of it and you can read her review here. Kimbo at Reading Matters, like me, had reservations but still saw it as “an extraordinary feat of imagination”. You can read her review here.