A scholarly study of two obscure Australian painters, and not (as the title promises) of a Russian composer’s diet.
Australian writer Modjeska (The Orchard, not reviewed) starts off with good intentions: to uncover the forgotten stories of Grace Cossington Smith (who lived an Emily Dickinson–like life of internal exile at her childhood home near Sydney) and Stella Bowen (who moved to Paris as a young woman and was the longtime mistress of English novelist Ford Madox Ford). Both were modernist painters who crafted substantial bodies of work, with Bowen painting impressionistic portraits of expatriate writers and the French countryside, and Smith turning out lapidary studies that recall both Whistler and Chagall. The author does a careful job of describing the painters’ lives and methods, but as she progresses she allows more and more of herself into their story, until Smith and Bowen seem in danger of becoming mere foils for what becomes a tiresome self-reference. “I am of a disposition,” Modjeska proclaims, “that understands all too well the struggle between the desire to give in to the narrative of love and the almost automatic habit of keeping on, of somehow managing. I know the insistence of work and the support that comes from one’s bruised and brilliant women friends.” That’s all to the good, but her subjects get lost in the glare of her reflections—all solid stuff for the postmodern set but not much fun for anyone else. Still, Modjeska capably defends her interest in Bowen and Smith not only as artists, but also as women who for the most part set their own terms in a time when few women could get away with that. And until the standard reference works catch up to them, her many illustrations will serve to acquaint readers with two artists who deserve attention.
Of interest to students of modernist art and of women’s history.