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Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska.

June 18, 2016

Stravinsky’s Lunch: Two Women Painters and the Claims of Life and Art, by Drusilla Modjeska.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2000).  384 pages.

 4 stars

The biographies of two Australian painters depicted with insight into the tensions which women faced in the mid-twentieth century between devotion to their art and their relationships.

Drusilla Modjeska is significant Australian writer (although born in England); one who challenges traditional practices and assumptions.  Always probing and insightful, she has written both fiction and non-fiction and sometimes explores the line between them.  Her Exiles in Their Own Land looked at the wave of Australian women authors and the conditions that fostered and shaped their writing between World Wars I and II.  (See my review.) Stravinsky’s Lunch extends that project to consider two very different women painters from approximately the same period.

Shelia Bowen was born in Australia, but left there to study art in Europe as a young woman shortly before World War I broke out.  She was the long-time mistress of Ford Maddox Ford, a man devoted to himself and his own writing, but supportive of her painting.  Together they had a daughter.  Their eventual separation led to what Modjeska sees as her definition as an painter struggling to support herself and her daughter as war broke out again. Bowen’s autobiography and lots of letters give the author plenty of evidence of her view of herself and those around her.  In contrast, Grace Cossington Smith lived her whole life in a suburb of Sydney, saying little about her thoughts, but also defining herself with her painting.  Relatively unrecognized most of her long life, she brought European Modernism into her works, adapting it to her own environment.  Modjeska finds her single life to have its own style of fulfillment.  In struggling to understand Smith, Modjeska balances her account on the edge, fictionalizing her life.

To establish conflicts in both women’s lives, Modjeska uses the account of how Stravinsky demanded that his family remain absolute quiet at lunch so that he could remain focused on his musical compositions.  For her the story symbolizes the assumption that Art demanded one’s full attention and had to prevail over all other demands of life.   She explains that such a viewpoint separates art from life and life from art and an assumption that works against women being taken seriously as artists.  In discussing Bowen and Smith, she points to attempts to move beyond that dualism in their art and their lives.  She writes about particular paintings by each with the depth of an art critic.  In doing so, she brings us inside the very different women and shows how both expanded the use of Modernism in their art, at the same time remaining true to themselves. The book includes many fine reproductions, in both color and black-and-white, allowing readers to follow what she says.

Modjeska is an expert at writing about the complexity and contradictions of ideas and images. She writes with clarity about maleness and femaleness at the same time she sees the need to move beyond dualisms.  As we begin a new century, we can observe that on one hand, some explicitly womanly art is being created.  At the same time, definitions of maleness and femaleness have lost their strictness.  While gender analysis is useful in  such analysis, these assumptions no longer hold the same power that they once did over all of us.  As Modjeska recognizes, gender definitions are never as unchanging as they seem.

I highly recommend this book for readers who care about women’s biographies, about art, and about how woman struggle with assumptions that define success outside the home as male.


Drusilla Modjeska is a favorite author of mine.  See my reviews of other books of her that I have read.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2016 9:20 am

    I’ve had this on my TBR for ages, I really must read it soon!
    I’ve read a bio of Stravinsky: he was, apparently, quite a difficult man. But then, as you say, art seems to demand it.

    • July 3, 2016 6:50 pm

      Yes, do read it. She seems to question of such exclusion really is demanded by art.

  2. June 19, 2016 2:33 am

    This sounds like a fascinating read and insight, thank you for the excellent review.

  3. June 29, 2016 4:57 am

    Like Lisa, this has been on my TBR for a long time too. I do enjoy your insightful reviews. Thank you for reminding me of this book.

  4. July 3, 2016 6:56 pm

    Thanks, and I apologize for not answering your previous comments. My life is rather haphazard these days. But I miss being in touch with people like you. I don’t read as many good books when I am out of touch. I hope your book is progressing well.

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