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Archive for July, 2013

Justice and Police Museum, Sydney, Saturday 20 October 2012 – Sunday 28 April 2013

Entering the galleries of the Justice and Police Museum late on a quiet Saturday afternoon for ‘Wicked Women’, is like walking onto a 1950s pulp fiction film noir set, and being surrounded by high profile female actresses in character, poised in fiercely provocative poses of femme fatales. The Valadon’s 17 portraits of high profile professional women like Tara Moss, Rachel Ward, Skye Leckie, Imogen Kelly, Sonia Kruger, Ros Reines, Larissa Behrendt, Antonella Gambotto-Burke, Margaret Cunneen, Essie Davis, Annette Shun Wah andKara Shead, are imposing and larger-than-life in both size and scale.

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The portraits, painted in oil are unframed, hung and arranged at eye level against a dark royal blue background, beautifully complementing the artist’s chiaroscuro technique and rich but luminous palette of racy reds and devilish greens . Each portrait is lit by spotlights, giving the flesh of Valadon’s figures a life-like iridescent glow . Valadon’s lush brushwork and evocative palette creates excitement and danger, while the textures and luxuriant surfaces of paint and colour prompt the eye to linger slowly across the canvas . In the quietness of the galleries, the paintings seem to come alive with a strange and seductive feminine power, imbuing the space with a highly dramatic, sexually charged and theatrical atmosphere.

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Each painting has a label next to it with brief description, or quote by the sitter, and the corresponding title and image of the pulp fiction novel or film poster on which it is based. This effectively allows the viewer to compare the original image with Valadon’s re-production. The labels are informative and engaging without being over-burdened with detail. The paintings are grouped wall by wall under a theme indicated by gilt inscriptions above them. For example, underneath the wall with ‘With a Gun in Her Hand she was Slaughter in Satin’ are the portraits of gun wielding Essie Davis and Sonia Kruger, and satin adorned killer looks of Skye Leckie and Imogen Kelly.

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The main gallery also has objects from the Justice and Police Museum collection such as hand-guns and poison bottle on display in cases in the middle of the main gallery. There is also a small exhibition space with 30 drawings documenting the artist’s creative process arranged in a sporadic, cluttered fashion against a dark red wall. In the centre of the room, there is a resting space where visitors can watch documentary film containing interviews with artist Rosemary Valadon and her sitters.

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Rosemary Valadon (1947-), is an award winning Australian artist, with a career spanning 35 years. Her work is represented in major Australian collections , and private collections in Australia and overseas. From her early portraits to prize winning works through to her more recent interest in feminine rituals of identity, her work continues to be included in major art prize exhibitions . She is a regular finalist in the Archibald, Sulman, Blake, Portia Geach and Mosman prizes. Her body of work explores politics of gender and identity, the body and its representation in a playfully seductive, ribald and mysterious manner . Most recently, her interest has been in ‘feminine’ and depictions of women throughout the ages. Her representations of the feminine explore the power of sensuality and display an interest in psychological theories of the self, in particular Freudian theory, identity formation and gender, freedom and dependence, and issues of human development.

Valadon’s inspiration for the exhibition came from her time as artists-in-residence at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney in 2009, where she explored the Museum’s extensive collection, researching the history and depictions of women and crime. She also visited its Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal exhibition, where she was struck by the vast contrast between the glamorous depictions of women in the pulp fiction covers and the photographs of real-life female criminals from the 1920s and 1930s . At the height of its popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, pulp fiction books covers and film noir posters evoked the sexy, smoky underworld of the femme fatale, and female criminals of the ‘Razor Gang’ in the 1920s and 1930s like the notorious Tilly Devine, to seek widest possible circulation . The ‘bad girls’ of pulp fiction were portrayed, against the middle-class norms of the 1950s, as vixens, seducers, deceitful and untrustworthy women of a subculture, wielding knives and guns with masterful cunning, power and intelligence, trapping men with their highly sexualised and scantily clad provocative, yet passive poses .

Valadon’s portraits are a startling re-imagination of the history and depictions of women and crime, and the place of the ‘femme fatale’ in the art of early to mid-20th-century pulp fiction and film noir. By painting professional twenty first century women in the archetypes of pulp fiction and film noir femme fatales, showgirls, husband killers, and sirens in suggestive poses, guns, knives, and cigarettes, Valadon raises questions about women, their power, their humour and their femininity. This co-insides with contemporary commentary about the virulence not just of sexism but also of misogyny, particularly targeting successful, outspoken women . Valadon’s representation of women as trailblazers, all making a statement forging a career, in some ways celebrates the successes of women in a society whilst also highlighting their struggles, especially in professional sphere . Her portraits ask the viewer to consider who holds the power, the artists, the sitter or the viewer? That is, whether women depicted as individuals with their on their own identity or as objects subject to the male gaze.

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This question of female agency goes to the heart of what it means to be a woman and the problematic nature of representations of femininity. This dichotomous dilemma goes as far back as biblical stories of creation, and has persisted into and beyond the middle ages, Enlightenment and Victorian era with the patriarchal phallocentric ideas of thinkers like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who categorised women as passive lesser versions of the whole more active and rational male . The idea that women are secondary to men in terms of artistic ability has also pervaded Australian art history, with many young Australian women artists of late 19th century and into the 20th century like Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith .

According to Valadon, her intention is to capture the look of the original artworks but add a vibrant and playful modern-day twist that reflects the sitter’s personality, and overthrows the sexist overtones of the original artworks . For Valadon, ‘sexual wickedness is all about suggestion and adventure, not porn’ . Her portraits reflect this, containing only a glimpse of skin through sensuous, rustling fabrics; full skirts, fitted bodices and waists. For Valadon, wicked women are those women who display ‘a lack of fear, curiosity, and refusal to obey certain rules’ especially where expressions of femininity, sensuality and sexuality are concerned .

The pulp fiction crime novels and posters the portraits are based on depict women as objects of lust and subjects of desire crafted by men’s fantasies . For me, Valadon’s skilled use of painterly conventions of oil painting imbues her female figures with a lush and sensuous power, which both conveys the beauty of the feminine and reasserts the power of seduction. Valadon’s preliminary drawings and final works show empowered women, unashamed of their sexualised identity and erotic relationships with others, a view or attitude which contradicts the ethos of 1950s Australia. The figures in the portraits exude sass, confidence and control. They are a celebration of the strength, style and dark side of successful, independent, unconventional women who have embraced the full power of their femininity in the professional realm. Valadon’s work, turns male gaze around, creating a space where women are actively in control and commanding their world, highlighting the seductive power of ‘the feminine’ to appeal to both men and women. Some men and women will be threatened by this exhibition. Others will fall in love with it. As Mae West also said: ‘When women go wrong, men go right after them’. I highly recommend this exhibition as an interesting and thought provoking experience which raises more questions than it answers. It prompts the viewer to question their ideas and assumptions about sexuality, crime, feminism and gender representation.

Bibliography:
Allen, T 2001, Cross-Currents in Contemporary Australian Art, Craftsman House, St Leonards, Sydney
Baudrillard, J 1990, Seduction, St Martin’s Press, New York
Cixous, H & Clement, C 1986, The Newly Born Woman, University of Minnesota Press, Mineeapolis
Behrendt, L 2012, Wicked Women Exhibition Opening Speech, viewed 17 May 2013, http://www.rosemaryvaladon.com.au/essays/wicked-women-exhibition-opening-speech/
Flax, J 1990, Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West, University of California Press, California
Gambotto-Burke, A 2012, ‘Billion Dollar Bodies: The Rosemary Valadon Interview’, viewed 17 May 2013, http://www.rosemaryvaladon.com.au/essays/billion-dollar-bodies/
Gibson, P 2012, An Exhibition by Rosemary Valadon, viewed 17 May 2013 http://www.rosemaryvaladon.com.au/essays/an-exhibition-by-rosemary-valadon-by-prue-gibson/
Johnson-Woods, T 2004, Pulp : a collector’s book of Australian pulp fiction covers, National Library of Australia, Canberra
Matheson, M 2012, ‘Wicked girls love brush with infamy’, The Australian, October 19, viewed 17 May 2013, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/wicked-girls-love-brush-with-infamy/story-e6frg6n6-1226498901476
Pattenden, R 2006, ‘The Textures of Desire’, viewed 17 May 2013 http://www.rosemaryvaladon.com.au/essays/the-textures-of-desire/
Slipp, S 1993, The Freudian Mystique: Freud, Women, and Feminism, New York University Press, New York
Taylor, A 2012, ‘Pulp depiction’, Sydney Morning Herald, October 13, viewed 17 May 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/pulp-depiction-20121011-27e64.html#ixzz2RFPzrbqN
Valadon, R 2006, The Divine Burlesque: That Art of Rosemary Valadon, Macquarie University, Sydney, and online at http://www.rosemaryvaladon.com.au/essays/the-divine-burlesque-the-art-of-rosemary-valadon/
Valadon, R 2013, ‘Great time at WW panel discussion’, Rosemary Valadon’s blog, viewed 13 May 2013, http://www.rosemaryvaladon.com.au/blog/
‘Wicked Women’, Limelight Magazine (online), http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/Event/319566,wicked-women.aspx
Young-Bruel, E 1990, Freud on Women, W.W. Northon & Co, New York

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