Locked out of the studio: On ‘The Creative Life of Anne McCahon'

Art

30.01.2017

Locked out of the studio: On ‘The Creative Life of Anne McCahon'

Artist Jacqueline Fahey reflects on Anne Hamblett McCahon (1915-1993) the person and the painter. 

There is such a burden of expectation placed on Anne’s painting, and on the exhibition A Table of One's Own: the Creative Life of Anne McCahon at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery itself. I feel, like many women painters that she is being asked to prove an undeniable promise. This is unfair.

Anne’s paint language stands on its own as delicious and confident in its sensuality.  

There is also an eloquence here capable of expressing big ideas. However, circumstances saw to it that those big ideas were not to be developed. A little further on in time things could have been more satisfying for Anne. 

My last memory of Colin and Anne McCahon as a couple was at the opening of Anxious Images at the Auckland City Gallery in 1984. They emerged into the light, small and desperate, like fugitives from a Goya scenario.

My last memory of Colin and Anne McCahon as a couple was at the opening of Anxious Images at the Auckland City Gallery in 1984. They emerged into the light, small and desperate, like fugitives from a Goya scenario. Clutching each other, peering out at an alien world. That transformation was quickly replaced by what I knew. That here was Colin McCahon and Anne McCahon, meaningful, familiar. 

It was Anne who gained my attention that night at the City Gallery. After they had left, Alexa Johnston, who had curated  Anxious Images, told me what Anne had said. This is important to me not only because it flatters my ego, but because she must have shared my frustrations with the structures in society, that a male hierarchy saw to it that women’s creativity was diverted and suppressed. What she had said to Alexa was: “If I had continued to paint I would have painted like Jacqueline”. 

I realised for her to express such ideas would be much more difficult than it was for myself. She had been heavily programmed for domestic life before art school, I wasn’t.

I don’t think it was my paint use that she was referring to, we both had learned a similar paint language. I think she meant that what I had to say was what she needed to say. I realised for her to express such ideas would be much more difficult than it was for myself. She had been heavily programmed for domestic life before art school, I wasn’t. Her mother was skilled in the domestic arts, cooking, sewing, the management of a household, mine was not. Anne’s mother was an ideal Vicar’s wife. Anne, in her turn automatically learnt these skills. I didn’t. Whatever domestic skills I acquired were hard won. I found it all time absorbing and boring. I was not prepared for it.

Both my mother and father worked. My mother earned if anything more than my father and employed household help, or help in the house as she called it. When war broke out household help went into war work and we four girls were sent off to boarding school. Consequently I was bereft of domestic skills when I married. Cooking? I lacked that essential ingredient, confidence. Household tasks seemed like servitude to me. I tried, I really did, but I quickly understood that without painting I felt no personhood. This indeed was servitude. Anne by being so good at it made her servitude admirable. She was on top of it, it was on top of me. For Anne to stay on top of it she was obliged to neglect her painting where her true expression lay. My problem was to get out from underneath it. I believed that painting could explain my own predicament to me.

Anne could not have been an impartial witness to Colin’s decline into alcoholism. His decline would be her decline. 

Like most couples involved in creativity at that time in history we drank far too much. My husband Fraser did, I did as did most of our friends. Colin? Certainly did. Anne could not have been an impartial witness to Colin’s decline into alcoholism. His decline would be her decline. Alcohol was and still is a great way to block out the guilt that comes from turning your back on the certainties of life. An effort to think and see for oneself is erased with booze as is the unease, the sense of futility and any feelings of meaninglessness, invading the most original thinking. 

The wives of these men in bohemia kept the home fires burning while the great artist went out to discover himself. There must be a shared faith in his creative divinity for such a marriage to survive. There were many eager young candidates to prop up the great man should his original support in any way falter in her devotion. To my mind this all goes back to what you men have always been so good at, that is manipulation. There is that division of labour because you guys have seen to it. 

One of the things that used to truly piss me off was a question men would put to me: “Why have all the great paintings been painted by men?”… the answer is: “Because we were locked out of the studio.”

In my opinion men do not suffer that same rush of hormones to the head that happens with women at the time of puberty. Their hormones rush in the opposite direction. By the time a woman’s head begins to clear at say 40 or 50 years old, the train has left the station and we girls are not on it. I have no intention of suggesting that hormones taking over the brain make women stupid. Far from it. They are hormones of love, of trust and the nurturing of defenceless creatures. The trip wire is that these concerns can obscure other realities such as the reality of male culture. Male culture which fears love, trust and nurturing as a weakening process. One of the things that used to truly piss me off was a question men would put to me: “Why have all the great paintings been painted by men?” If we were talking about Africa or cavewomen I could have said that that is simply not true, however assuming we are talking about the Western Christian European period the answer is: “Because we were locked out of the studio.”

In writing about Anne, I want to have Colin as simply part of the mind-set of the day. Lots of us women were deceived about that mindset. Women who imagined that a socialist stance and a cry for equality included them were not very observant. By the time she caught on, it was always too late. If what she had imagined was a life of sharing, of equality, she was sadly deceived. 

Viewing the current exhibition at the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi I felt particularly sad about those illustrations. Excellent as they are, they are not able to express Anne's personal feelings. I fear they diverted her away from painting, which could have explained her state of mind to herself. My overwhelming response was that they were a mistake. I was reminded about how not long after Fraser and I married he was back in hospital. His tuberculosis had returned. Roy and Juliet Cowen were so supportive of both Fraser and myself. They asked me to do illustrations for the school journal. I agreed to do the illustrations but could not find the creativity in me to carry it out. The truth of the matter is I was unable to abandon my own ego. Looking at Anne’s illustrations I am glad I couldn’t. I continued on with my paintings such as Artist as Warrior, The Autopsy and Eggs for Breakfast

My circumstances however, were very different from Anne’s. I didn’t have children. I was waitressing at Harry Seresin's in Plischke’s building where I served Lou Johnson and Baxter. I visited Fraser every night in hospital and accompanied Antony Alpers to parties while he was writing The Life of Katherine Mansfield. I followed the lives of the Adcock sisters from behind the first espresso coffee machine. 

Her early training had taught her to get on with the task at hand. The promise in those early paintings was relinquished to necessity.

Anne had a household to keep afloat, she was doing whatever she could to survive. Her early training had taught her to get on with the task at hand. The promise in those early paintings was relinquished to necessity. How fortunate I was not to have children until I was 30. By the age of 30, my necessity was established, to explain myself to myself through painting. It was this personal quality that Anne recognised at the opening of Anxious Images, a quality she noticed in me because of her own needs. 

In the pamphlet accompanying The Creative Life of Anne McCahon, Anne’s daughter talks about why Anne did not continue to paint. One of the reasons postulated, was for me unbelievable, that she had nothing to say. From that lasting memory of Anne at Anxious Images 32 years ago, I am convinced that Anne McCahon had a great deal to say, that was her tragedy! 


A Table of One's Own: The Creative Life of Anne McCahon

Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery

19 Nov 2016 - 12 Feb 2017

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