Sunday, June 21, 2015

Portrait of a Sunday Painter

My recent show at Bus Projects was all about a woman who never really existed.

Giogia de Vivre was someone that I always wanted to find. She made work for the love of it, she was a mother, she was an illustrator and she was not always happy.

At a loose end, not being able to find this woman in history, I decided to make her up. I invited 6 other artists to write part of her life and I painted many portraits that might be her.

Then I put them all together into a book.

Some of the final portraits and texts are below.

More can be found on my website

On Discovering Giogia de Vivre
by Alicia Sometimes.

A friend had bought me the long lost out of print book Art Wilderness for my eighteenth birthday. It was a copy that must have languished in a Prahran seconds store for nearly half a century. It was well loved and well notated in. Underneath a magnificent portrait of a woman wearing a bristly pear coloured scarf there was an inscription, ‘Giogia de Vivre?’ in black ink. It was a question followed by this quote, ‘Only art is half the sentence’. I shut the book and thought of the woman and the menacing scarf almost hollowing out her breastbone, wistfully tormenting her whole existence. Maybe I imagined this last part, as the title for the work was, ‘Becoming a Model Mother’. I was haunted.

A few years later I saw the name Giogia de Vivre in a book composing elegiac patterns in art. It was theory on the Golden Ratio, Fibonacci numbers. It was just a brief description but again it too decided to creep into my bones and settle in for a while. It read, ‘Artist, mother, painter’ but no other detail. I wondered who could be just those three words. Who could not feel claustrophobic and be driven mad by wearing only three labels and nothing else? Had she worn that scarf? Was this her choice to be remembered by only these three accomplishments?

I then traced down as much as I could, which wasn’t much more. But I did stumble across these letters written to her lover. In them she is clearly free. Doubt filled but free. She is more than the artist, mother and painter. These words only offer a glimpse, but this glimpse has inspired my writing. The poet is in the paintings.

At 18 years old, Giogia de Vivre enrolled shyly at Prahran Technical School to undertake a degree in Fine Art. Her talents at the time seemed modest, she was technically competent of course but her work was vaguely stilted and self-conscious - a little afraid. As one of only a handful of woman at the time permitted to undertake the course, she kept largely to herself, her eyes cast downwards as she fumbled clumsily through the corridors with large folios always tightly bound shut.

In classes, Giogia with her flawless and probably painfully taught posture eagerly listened, and actively but quietly sought out constructive criticism. Usually after class had ended, she would sort of sneak up behind the teacher whilst he was packing away the still life references to ask a very specifically crafted question, her mousey haired ponytail bouncing uncharacteristically. It was always as if she had been rehearsing the interaction in her mind for hours so as when she spoke and gesticulated, she really did seem rather sure of herself. As time passed, this false conviction grew true.

After first year had concluded, Giogia was invited by the head of the faculty to exhibit her work, small-scale paintings, in the end of year exhibition. Not every student was selected to participate in this showing and there were whispers amongst the more prominent and praised students that the choice of including her was misguided. They discussed her work as being “quiet” and lacking in intellectual substance. They felt the faculty choose “safe” works rather than their own, which they of course believed to be boundary pushing and progressive. Giogia was aware of their judgments but was oddly unaffected. She never appeared to thrive off the approval of her peers, only her predecessors, and the announcement of her inclusion in the end of year exhibition had her gliding - not so clumsily this time - through the corridors.

Giogia attended the end of year exhibition opening drinks alone. No family, date or friends, and it certainly didn’t appear to faze her. She wore an unexceptional navy blue shift dress with a small polka dotted pattern, starched to perfection, and it looked to have been home made for the occasion. Her presence wasn’t unlike her initially unassuming still-life paintings. Both her and her work sat back, but harbored an almost iridescent glow, a constant warm light, that proved near impossible to ignore.

Giogia never returned to Prahran Technical School after she completed first year. The reasons for this are debated. Rumors were that she had either taken up a secretarial role interstate, encouraged by her apparently conservative parents – or that she’d been whisked abroad by a man she’d scandalously just met… Neither seemed to fit the diligent, unshakable drive and dedication she’d forged for her art practice, and her resolute tendency to make sensible and calculated decisions.

After one year at Prahran she left an impression of being fiercely private, softy spoken, yet – eventually sure of herself, and quietly but furiously dedicated to her practice. Obviously we now know she burned slowly into prominence, and it seems that perhaps in youth and in life itself she was too warm to touch, like the sun, best looked at in a photograph or not at all – to just be content with basking in the product of its efforts. Her presence made people feel uneasy, particularly because she appeared so mild that no one was comfortable being made to feel that way by this relatively typical-seeming woman. But, she emanated a strange heat, heat that produced that inimitable glow to made people squint and second-guess, and eventually grow to appreciate and revere her work.

Minna Gilligan

For many, Giogia de Vivre will be familiar only for her role in the famous Barry Rogers photograph. The domestic setting, the smoking eroticism and the subtlety of the image are at odds with his usually brash documentary images of Australian landscapes and lifestyles.  Despite this, it is one of his most famous images, regularly reproduced, owned by the National Gallery of Victoria, The National Gallery and even The Met.  When a rare print appears at auction, it is snaffled for a record-breaking price.  When de Vivre’s work received attention in the 80s, feminist commentators were critical of her role in the sexy image but subsequent feminist analysis saw it as much more than mere objectification and it was championed as a rare representation of female desire.  The provocative photograph inevitably inspired speculation that De Vivre and Rogers had had an affair.  Neither of them ever spoke of such a relationship and Rogers’ tell-all biography made no mention of De Vivre at all.  While the making of many of his images was discussed in detail, his only reference to ‘Nude with an umbrella’ was to mention auction prices and a rave review that appeared in ‘The Herald’. Lyndal Walker.

HEARSAY: 20 comments overheard about an artist

“Her work lacks structure. There’s just too much feeling in it…too much emotion.”

“She aspires to be reductive and wants to make minimal, clean, clear looking things but she can’t control herself. She’s got too many random thoughts and ideas.”

“I don’t want to sound negative or anything so I have to mention that she once made some pretty compelling, naked, performance videos…”

“Back in the day, when she was a dewy, luscious young thing, she insouciantly pumped out these fragile, glittery anti-monuments to love. Parkett commissioned one for its limited edition series. She seemed like she knew the laws of the labyrinth back then.”

“There were a few things that weren’t good for her, the wrong path taken instead of the right one, the rubbing up against it, the wearing into of it, of herself, the one that she tried to make perfect.”

“I have this feeling that there’s more going on than meets the eye. I went round to her apartment once and there were signs of a scuffle. Nothing was said.”

“She’s so upright and formidable. She scares the shit out of me. She seems so stern and miserable although twice I caught her smiling to herself which suggested some kind of amusing inner life.”

“The intellectual façade really operates to conceal the fact that she’s barely able to articulate anything of any consequence. She strikes me as being slightly retarded.”

“Audaciously, she once offered some unsolicited advice to the curatorial director of a mammoth, new, Asian art museum about their collecting policy for 20th and 21st century art. She suggested they reverse the entrenched gender imbalance typically found in the collections of the world’s major art institutions. His eyes glinted as he weighed up how many Krasners he could get for the price of a Pollock. She had his attention. He went on to oversee the formation of, arguably, the best collection of art in the world with the entire gender spectrum represented.”

“I heard tell that she’s been mixed up with some pretty bad men in the past.”

“I remember seeing a live performance in Zurich where she primly appeared in her tight, white lab coat and horn rimmed spectacles. All of a sudden she ripped open her coat exposing her chest with a gaping wound over her heart. She plugged it with pollyfiller then smoothed foundation over the surface rendering it invisible. We all gasped.”

“In 1977 she was arrested and charged with vagrancy. Maybe she was living on the streets, anyhow, she was making funny little camps in overlooked city corners. It was hard to tell if it was an art project or she was genuinely down on her luck.”

“I’ve got no time at all for that abject stance. Is she hoping for some kind of positive attention? No one likes a loser.”

“Her life improved when she abandoned making large, unwieldy, sculptural mounds and became a painter. That all-consuming burden of recycling everything had really held her back.”

“I would have to lump her into that category of ‘women who care too much’ somehow…..or is it ‘women who do too much’?  - the phrase?”

“She works at night, in the dark, when her babies are asleep.”

“She’d absorbed the observations of the Guerilla Girls too well for her own good and spent her entire life as an artist not only working without the pressure of success but without the expectation of success.”

“She never stops. Her career actually DID pick up after she was 80.”

“Her life was greatly enhanced when she learned to say NO! That is… she ceased to automatically and generously oblige marketing functionaries. She said NO to trite interviews and questionnaires. NO to features on design blogs and NO to relentless requests for statements and bios and studio visits.”

“Towards the end, as her work became sought after, she finally found intelligent support, and with generous supplies of materials and plenty of space she just flourished. The last paintings are so vigorous and strong… you got to wonder what she might have done with her boundless energy if that had come to her as a young woman….”

Sarah crowEST 2015

There’s something so silent and pared back, but still wonderfully vibrant about de Vivre’s later work after she famously gave up ‘drinking and people’ and moved to Samos alone. The subject shifts from the early sunlit interiors marked by those thick vibrant blues, reds and yellows to small works with the wonky washes of black and those almost psychedelic eruptions of colour at the horizon. I don’t think they are interiors anymore, but its hard to tell (which I like), they feel more like landscapes but could just as easily be a view of the window next to her bed in the dark (you know the room from that famous photo by Giorgio Svoboda) or else nocturnal visions of one sort or another: nightmare, hallucinations, hypnogogic states, dreams lucid or mundane,
 I love thinking of her alone in that small house by the sea, that she at last found her own company enough after all those tumultuous years full of passion and pain and excess. I think she was brave too to live alone in a country where she couldn’t speak the language, often not seeing another person for months on end. I actually tried to visit the house a few years back but got lost somewhere along the way and ended up wandering, lost for hours among the olive terraces. Eventually I made my way down to a small bay where (luckily) a guy gave me a lift back to the main town in his fishing boat. He had no idea that she had been a painter but had heard stories of The Hermit, he called her ο Ερημίτης and he was surprised that I had come all the way from Australia to pay homage.
He pointed her house out as we went past on the boat. It really was the middle of nowhere, but what a beautiful nowhere; all rocks and water and air, olives and pines. People talk about her being an amateur and making her work for love as if these were bad things. To propose that love has no currency - that’s an economy I’d be very happy to step out of and I guess that is exactly what Giogia de Vivre did and why I am so fond of her and her work.

Veronica Kent.

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