JULIE KEYS The Artist’s Portrait. Reviewed by Linda Godfrey
Shortlisted for the the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017, this debut novel from Julie Keys explores the life of a woman artist in Sydney in the 1920s.
The first couple of times I passed her house there was no one around. Not that I saw anyone much at that time of morning. On that day, though, she was there at sunrise, watering her brown singe of a lawn. I raised my hand to say hello as I passed on the verge. She turned the hose on me.
‘Holy fuck!’ I stepped sideways but the stream followed my legs until I was out of reach.
This novel has twin narratives: the first gives us the story of Muriel Kemp growing up in Sydney’s Surry Hills during the 1920s; the second begins with the above encounter between Muriel and a young nurse, Jane Cooper, when they are both living in Shellharbour, on the south coast of New South Wales.
From the beginning Muriel is shown to be strong-willed, prickly, and a talented visual artist. In the first scene, a young Muriel is dragged, fighting all the way, to an artist’s studio to pose so her father can make some money:
The place stunk of cats, Lysol and turps, and there was the crack of my wrist bending backwards. I wouldn’t take off my clothes. I wouldn’t stay where I didn’t want to be. I spat and clawed and called him a mongrel then tripped in the dark over a loose board on the step.
The first two chapters focus on Muriel and those around her in working-class Surry Hills, plus the wider art world, in 1920s Australia. Julie Keys evokes the life and milieu of the streets – the poverty, the businesses, and the bohemian art scene moving into the area. Muriel’s two mentors have studios in Surry Hills, however Max Jenner and James Dennison paint chocolate-box portraits and nudes. Muriel’s painting is modernist, a style not favoured by male artists in Australia, and Muriel is roundly abused and dismissed for her painting style. Modernist painting was taken up more by women painters like Grace Cossington Smith, Thea Proctor, Margaret Preston and Clarice Beckett among others, and the fictional Muriel Kemp is included among them.
In the third chapter we move forward in time to 1992 and meet Jane, a nurse, walking the streets of Shellharbour in the early morning to ease her morning sickness. There she encounters Muriel.
From this point the narratives entwine. Jane assists Muriel when she hurts her arm retrieving the newspaper from bushes. Muriel finds out Jane writes and commissions her to write her biography, providing her with information on tapes. Over the period of her pregnancy, Jane listens to the tapes and Muriel narrates her story to the reader as if we are with her back in Surry Hills, living out her life as it happened.
It’s a complicated story with a cast of fascinating characters. There’s murder, mystery, deaths, disappearances, babies – all with Muriel at the centre of the action. Sydney in the 1920s is almost a character and the lush green hills around Gerringong and Seven Mile Beach are described in intricate detail.
Two strong themes emerge from this work. The first goes some way to answering the age-old art history question: Where are the women? In the novel we see women being trivialised, dismissed, undermined and forgotten as artists; they are represented as objects of the (male) artist’s gaze or murder victims in the pages of books, but works made by women are conspicuously underrepresented. Muriel’s work is appropriated by others, by artists and dealers. Men, like Adam and Dennison, make their living and reputations off her work. Yet her work is demonised by male artists:
‘You could have dunked a spoon in their outrage and supped. There’ll be articles written damning the whole thing.’
There are fictionalised comments in the epigraph attributed to real male artists of the time. In this context they are directed at Muriel, but similar things were said and written about by real life women artists in the 1920s, especially the modernists:
Kemp’s paintings have the stench of an abattoir; the flesh she depicts is lifeless – a reflection of the artist, no doubt.
— Norman Lindsay
We are talking about the banal here. I’d hate to have her cook my dinner.
— Xavier Herbert
The second theme that comes up is one often discussed among women creatives: Can women have children and devote themselves to their art? Marina Abramović and Tracy Emin, among others, say no, you can’t. Others say it’s archaic, primitive and prehistoric to think that there is some precious thing, artistically speaking, inside a woman that will be broken by having a child. When Muriel finds out Jane is pregnant she urges her to get rid of it. And over the course of the narrative we find out why Muriel is so vehement about the issue. In a recent interview with me in Wollongong, Julie Keys noted that few prominent women artists of the period had children.
The story unfolds so that the reader can see the personal stories of Muriel and Jane, plus the political and social pressures on them both to conform to societal ‘norms’, without being heavy-handed. The narrative plaits the two time periods and the two women’s stories, elucidating their life choices. I read the book twice to get the whole picture and found new things to admire on every page, and I was in awe of Keys’s narrative skill.
Definitely worth a read, definitely worth suggesting to your book club.
Julie Keys The Artist’s Portrait: A story about art, murder and making your place in history Hachette Australia 2019 PB 290pp $23.99
Linda Godfrey is a writer and editor. She has been the series editor of microliterature anthologies, a reader for journals, a teacher and a judge of literary competitions. She publishes fiction and poetry in journals and anthologies.
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