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Posted on 13 Apr 2023 in Fiction |

KYLIE NEEDHAM Girl in a Pink Dress. Reviewed by Annette Hughes

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Kylie Needham’s debut novel contemplates what happens when a muse is also an artist.

The ‘girl in a pink dress’ is Frances, a young art student who charms her tutor (twice her age) and becomes his muse. The trope of the older male artist and the younger female artist is practically a cliché, but as the story unfolds, filtered through Frances’s first-person narration, the author slowly dissolves the dark layers of varnish obscuring the truth that Frances conceals from herself, and therein lies the pleasure of this novel. Written in sparse, shimmering prose, Needham’s portrait of an artist struggling to define her vision of both her work and herself is highlighted with moments of dazzling visual clarity, and underpinned by subtle character development.

The novel begins in the midst of an exhibition opening. Frances, the model for the painting Girl in a Pink Dress, considers the work, looking for meaning. The action then backtracks to events just prior to the exhibition. Frances, now 46, is anxious about attending the show and stepping back into the world of her one-time lover, the celebrated mid-career art star, Clem Hughes. The exhibition includes paintings of her made 25 years earlier in his vast Sydney warehouse studio during their first flush of ‘love’, when she becomes his live-in model, studio assistant and muse.

 Frances assumes the role of model, but glazes it with ‘love’. When she admits to Clem, ‘If you’d asked me to pose naked, I would have,’ that is his cue. The fragile ingenue thing well and truly reeled him in, but later, as her tale unfolds, the reader learns what she really desires – experience and access:

For three whole days, I didn’t leave his studio.

There was nothing I wanted or needed that wasn’t already there. I didn’t call my mother to tell her where I was. I didn’t show up for work and didn’t ring to explain. I didn’t change my clothes; I wore Clem’s painting shirts and nothing else, no underwear, no shoes. I drank fancy French wine and listened to Bob Dylan for the first time, Clem mouthing to me behind the smoke of his cigarette, You’re a big girl now. I made a nest around myself with his heavy art books, spending hours staring at the works of Titian, Velazquez, Picasso, Schiele, Rothko, de Kooning, Freud. I hung Clem’s camera around my neck and took black and white photographs of him while he painted – his chest bare, his hair tied back, one curl escaping over his eyes. And I heard the growling garbage trucks break the morning’s silence with their indifferent beeping and hissing and smashing of glass.

She can’t say she wasn’t aware of the job description. She’s read plenty of art history – certainly enough to know that the historical artist/muse transaction seldom ended up square. Picasso’s use and abuse of his muse wives is well known and Frances would have found Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot on the college library shelves.

She tells herself she is paying rent in kind for the use of Clem’s luxurious studio. When not spending hours standing still till her feet go numb while the ‘genius’ breaks her down into planes of reflected light, she is priming and underpainting his canvases and is, of course, sexually available at all times, leaving frustratingly little time for her own work. I feel very close to Frances because I did the same thing: as an art student with a burning ambition to escape the claustrophobic beige suburbs of Brisbane, at the age of 18 I seduced my mentor, the art dealer Ray Hughes, 15 years my senior.

I was certainly groomed by the canon to believe the artist requires a muse, a belief maintained by generations of male artists. Clem’s father, Albert, claimed that his wife Evangeline ‘was the most magnetic, beguiling woman I have ever met. By some grand stroke of fortune, I have found my muse.’ Though Evangeline was ten years his senior and an artist in her own right, Albert felt entitled to send his muse out for the pastries he liked after a day of painting, and to her body – to paint, to fuck and to bear and care for their child, Clem.

Albert would have been 28 when Clem was born, and she 39 – a late age for pregnancy back then. What made her leap into the Seine? Was she depressed by her thwarted artistic career or perhaps undiagnosed post-natal depression? The author doesn’t say, but for Frances, trying to make sense of her lover’s confessions about the loss of his mother and now stepping into the role of muse herself, the questions must weigh heavily on her mind.

Frances, however, has arrived at the start of her career in modern times which are a-changing all around her. The shackles that prevented previous generations of female artists from reaching their full potential, like her heroine Clarice Beckett, no longer hold. Frances may have signed up for the traditional role of pliant muse but at the same time she is milking the situation for all she can get, straddling two worlds and taking what she can from both. Without an ‘M’, the word ‘muse’ becomes ‘use’. M for Mother? Marriage? Manipulator? Monster, perhaps?

Frances receives from Clem as much as he appears to receive from her. The transaction is equally beneficial for both parties. Frances gets access to Albert and gains the knowledge she wants from him, and has the narcissistic pleasure of basking in the glory of his praise; Clem gets her free labour and free love. And he gets to bestow upon her the gift of mentorship – a pleasure in itself. As his model, plain, quiet Frances emerges from her chrysalis:

I began to see my body the way he saw it – as a thing of supple movement and fluid lines; of verticals and horizontals, diagonals; as rising and falling forms – as a thing, I began to feel, of a sort of beauty.

There is power in being the object of the male gaze and for Frances, an alpha male is an artist with a capital ‘A’. It is not surprising that she is attracted to Clem, a high priest of the ‘brotherhood of the brush’. His father Albert is practically the pope of the order.

So much of the setting of this novel has a bearing on character development. Sydney’s twentieth-century fin-de-siècle art scene is itself a character, seen though Frances’s eyes, but, at age 20, she knows little about it other than what she has heard from other students, all of whom want to become part of it. She knows it is risky for Clem to be fucking his student, he could be sacked, but there is little risk in it for her, except that she might become the subject of bitchy gossip. She is ‘as guilty as the next person of having examined the salacious bones of [Evangeline’s] story’.

At Frances’s suggestion, Clem agrees to rent a dilapidated cottage in an old gold-mining town in the mountains north-west of Sydney, where they plan to each paint a show.

 I had left home, and my mother, and the dim suburb where I had been stuck for twenty years. I was in the passenger seat of Clem’s old cream Mercedes in my pink dress, speeding up the highway at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour, the windows down and the hot summer wind whipping my face, my bag of clothes and satchel of art materials behind me on the back seat; on my way to a distant town perched high in the mountains, close to the sky, that I’d only seen in paintings and read about in art books, where I was going to live and work with Clem, the man I adored and who improbably adored me too, and the two of us creating art together that would make our names.

Here Frances slips up: Clem already has a name. ‘His stellar career had been recorded in every newspaper and art magazine you cared to name’ and Frances has heard he is to become one of her third-year tutors. Long before she agrees to model for him, she attends the opening night of his exhibition where she admits, ‘I felt I had no right to want more than a glimpse into Clem’s sparkling world. But I did.’ It is clear before the affair begins that she has decided she wants in, and will do whatever it takes to become his protégé. It is her name she intends to make, on the back of his.

One has to wonder why, though, when at every turn she claims to deplore the art world and the ‘vapid’ people who populate it, even the collectors of her own oeuvre. But at the same time, she needs a dealer because, unlike Clem who was ‘born into art royalty’, she must ‘work’ for the privilege of being an artist.

There is no privilege in being an artist. It is dirty, poisonous, infuriating work. It can take a whole lifetime to develop the necessary craft to successfully express an idea or emotion. What Frances really means is that she must work for the privilege of time to spend making her art. As with music, where many can play Mozart, but few are good enough to make it into a symphony orchestra, it takes practice. Perhaps her disapproval of the art world is to cushion the possibility that she may not be good enough.

I married my mentor when I was 25 and, following the birth of our son, we opened a gallery in Sydney in the mid 1980s, first in Paddington, then Surry Hills a couple of years later. We showed several emerging women artists just like Frances. One of our stars was Davida Allen, who won the 1986 Archibald with a portrait of her father-in-law, a staid country doctor. She painted him stripped to his shorts, holding a garden hose. The work is layered with acute commentary about the artist’s female gaze upon a man, and though the press insisted on referring to her as a ‘mother of four’, she stuck to her guns and prevailed, going on to forge a long-term artistic career. But Davida is a figurative painter. It’s not so easy for a landscape painter to make such a pointed critique. Frances must find her muse elsewhere.

Now, still working at her own pace on her own terms in the cottage she and Clem had once inhabited all those years ago, she remains plagued by feelings of failure and unwillingness to accept her own gradual success. With Tobias, her dealer, she has carved out a solid career and enjoys the support of a serious circle of collectors, but she suspects that in taking Clem’s leg-up she took the easy road, undermining her capacity to believe wholeheartedly in her own work.

How vibrant and full of promise it seemed when the two of us first arrived, every corner of it shimmering with warm sunlight, a luminous interior painted in blazing yellows and fiery tangerines. Fresh daffodils and purple irises spilling from glass bottles on the windowsills. Jammy-ripe persimmons and furry-skinned quinces picked straight from the tree and heaped in earthenware bowls.

Here, though the memories of love and betrayal surrounding her reinforce her delusion that she only has a career because she was once an artist’s muse, she is nevertheless at peace. Clem hated everything she loves about the place – she never tires of the play of light on the surface of the river she loves, on the towering clouds above the shoulders of the range. A place where she now has all the time in the world to paint and see herself reflected in a landscape as inspiring as any muse.

Kylie Needham Girl in a Pink Dress Hamish Hamilton 2023 HB 208pp $27.99

Annette Hughes is a singer-songwriter performing with Geoffrey Datson in their duo Datson Hughes. Their second studio album, Now and Forever, is out now on vinyl:

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