Sunday, July 31, 2011

olley, krasner: childfree artists

Three of my favourite artists have died of late, all of them in their 80's, painters, all, and each with their own sense of style. Living, as I do, in a house of art-interested people, we've been collectively mourning the loss first of Cy Twombly, then Lucian Freud and, late last week, of Margaret Olley, a woman who was, right to the end, still chugging back the cigarettes as though she'd never heard of lung cancer. Each was unique, but Olley was for me rather interesting being, of course, that still (though far less so, these days) rare beast: a woman who painted for a living. I used to see her out and about in Sydney when I was at art school and have long-admired her decision to choose career over kids in a time when it was, I suspect, far harder to make people understand that choice. She was always her own woman.

We pulled out Pollack on Saturday afternoon, arguably the best film about art ever made, one I've seen countless times but that still manages to throw up something new upon each sitting. This time, and with Olley's recent departure in mind, I was blown away by Marcia Gay Harden's portrayal of Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollack's wife who championed his work above her own, who made managing his career, hers. Harden's performance is excellent - Oscar-winningly so - but this time I noted just how well she plays someone for whom having children was simply not an option.

Two scenes worth noting: the despairing turn she makes on Ed Harris' masterly Pollack when, on seeing her work for the first time, he proclaims, "You're a damn good woman painter." The other is when Krasner has taken her alcoholic genius husband away from the drunken distractions of New York to the Hamptons where he is, at long (bloody) last, living up to the tag genius. Their lives are calm, things are looking up and in a moment of marital bliss Pollack announces he wants a child. Her response is heart-breaking, blows the film wide open, and I can only paraphrase, "You want to bring a child into THIS?" The "this" being, of course, his wild and often vicious genius, but there's more than that to Harden's performance, some unspoken business that makes the film so incredibly good - she chose not to be a mother because it would have got in the way of what she felt she needed to do.

There is no such chasm of choice these days, and women really can "have it all", but I like that Krasner, and Olley, made the choices that they did. I wonder how they felt about their decisions as they got older.