14 May 2007

Glorious Eccentrics by Mary Ann Caws

For the past couple of months, I've been dipping into Glorious Eccentrics: Modernist Women Painting and Writing, a delightful and enlightening book that offers essays on a variety of women who lived their lives according to their own senses of propriety and integrity. The essays are partly biographical, partly analytical, but the book makes no attempt to present comprehensive studies of these women -- instead, it is a celebration and reclamation of particular people in particular moments.

Some of the women here are receiving attention they have long deserved, while at least one, Dora Carrington, is likely to be familiar to many general readers, at least via the movie in which Emma Thompson portrayed her. The other women in the book may be familiar to specialists or devotees in some fields: Claude Cahun (about whom I've written here before), Paula Modersohn-Becker, Emily Carr, Dorothy Bussy, Suzanne Valadon, and Judith Gautier.

Caws's tone is often light, but her sentences are full of information and insights. At first, I thought the book lacked structure and import, but by the second chapter, I had changed my mind completely -- the wonder of the book lies less in its individual portraits of each woman than in the force that comes from comparison and accumulation. Caws is not just celebrating interesting lives, lives deserving more notice -- she is showing ways that women learned to live according to their own standards, ways that women crafted lives for themselves in societies and cultures where the sorts of lives they wanted to live were seldom rewarded and were often perilous. Some of the choices these women made took tolls, but many of them opened up possibilities and pleasures that less daring people (of any gender) might envy.

Glorious Eccentrics is a marvelous book not just because it does the good and noble work of bringing the art and lives of some wonderful women out of whatever shadows covered them, but because it tells lively stories about these women. Each chapter has a different sort of approach, because, as Caws says at the beginning,
Most appealing to me are the crucial moments of their lives or thoughts, those crisis points that mold the mind and heart and grip the imagination. I have chosen to speak of these women because their very intensity beckons my own -- not the particulars of their lives, but the odd details that challenge society's norms and beckon to us others, eccentric in our own way, often interior.
It is those moments that Caws makes fascinating and appealing by using the women's own words whenever possible, as any good scholar might, but also by stretching a bit, speculating. For instance, about one of Carrington's portraits of Lytton Strachey, she writes,
The painting conveys all the wonder and terror of Carrington's adoration. How private it is: how it should not be shown to others. Here is the surprising part, until we try to understand it a bit: even not to the person loved. His portrait, with its so clear statement of adoration, is not always to be shared, in agony of soul, with the very person adored. The dread is double: showing it to others, but also showing it to the beloved. Intimacy does not require, in all cases, the sharing of the expression of emotion. Here is Carrington's profound instinctive comprehension of something indeed too deep for words. It is the image itself that reaches the profoundest depths. She has loved Lytton the way few people have the ability to love. Even during the rages of jealousy portrayed in the descriptions of her, alone, outside the lit windows of the house where Lytton is with his male lovers, and she sees them through the windowpanes, even during the loneliness and her own incapacities for painting, about which she always blames herself, it will be this relation of her mind and heart to the one she so terribly loves that will matter.
(I'm sure it's not to everyone's taste, but I love how that last sentence whirls out of control with passion.)

Love -- its creative and destructive power -- is a theme running through many of these lives, and both Carrington and Dorothy Bussy loved gay men (in Bussy's case, André Gide). The chapter on Bussy is a masterpiece, because in it Caws quotes at length from Bussy's letters and journals, trying to show, as she later tries to show with Carrington, that her love was not something to be scoffed at, dismissed, or marginalized, as many writers (about the men) have done. About the relationships between Bussy and Gide, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Carrington and Strachey, she writes,
In my view, neither the various household arrangements nor the various emotional involvements were unsuitable, for, despite the anguish, they worked. In each case, a strong-minded and artistically oriented woman, married to a heterosexual man, remained in her most important relation with a man oriented toward other men. In each case, it was the singular and "inappropriate", thus eccentric, relation that lasted as the crucial one, for the work and the life of both beloved and loving -- each dependent upon the other. We have only to reread these letters between Dorothy and the man she spent her life loving and translating to see the essential nature of the relation between them. These three beloved men, all extraordinary, all homosexual, were able, for all the pain caused by the inbalance [sic] of their relations, to nourish the mind and work of the imaginative and strong personalities that these women were. We too have to make a true reading as best we can.
I'm not sure it's possible to offer any sort of "true reading", but I do like Caws's attempt to offer a different one, one opposed to the often trivializing readings of most of the men's biographers. She may err toward celebration, but that, to me, is preferable to the opposite.

There's much more -- more stories, more words, more sparkling moments of insight.

My greatest regret about the book is that the paintings reprinted in it are reprinted in black and white, which makes them seem far more drab than they are. Even the cover of the book, though reprinting a marvelous Cahun photograph, is drab, is this is unfortunate, because what is contained here is anything but drab.

I wish I had boxes of this book to give away to young writers and artists of all sorts, male and female. We need more eccentrics, and we should never be afraid to glorify them.

1 comment:

  1. Caws herself is quite the eccentric too. (I've seen her speak and chatted with her a bit.) She approaches her field much more from the perspective of a fan rather than a detached academic, and I think it works well for her; it's particularly an attitude that makes sense in the context of Dada and surrealism.

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