Thoughts on Writing Biography ­ Blog ­ Susan Steggall

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Thoughts on Writing Biography

In 2001 after finishing a Master of Art Theory degree on the lives and careers of some Australian women sculptors, I was looking for a new project. I’ve always been interested in writing biography – my first book, ALPINE BEACH, was a family biography. I was fascinated as to what motivated Joan Kerr. She was plagued by ill health and suffered from severe asthma for much of her life, but once started on a major project she would work on long after others had given up. She was not only a rigorous scholar but also a larrikin intellectual who could, to quote Peter Watts: ‘She was irreverent, quick witted and mischievous. She loved the quirky and the absurd.’[1]

I wrote to Joan at the very moment she was moving back to Sydney after a bruising end to her tenure at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at ANU in Canberra. Her letter in reply was very encouraging: ‘What a joyful surprise,’ she wrote, ‘to be transformed into a woman with an interesting and worthwhile past…’

As a mature-age postgraduate student, far from the cut-and-thrust of university politics I think I represented a neutral corner. Like Deirdre Bair and her bold plan to write a biography of Samuel Beckett, I had approached Joan Kerr ‘with the courage of enthusiasm and naivety, and the audacity of the wet-behind-the-ears biographer’.[2] Beckett had accepted Bair’s proposal because he thought someone new, fresh, and unknown in his own circles, would do an ‘honest’ job. That this was my situation vis-à-vis Joan Kerr strengthened my resolve.

I had several meetings with Joan, in 2001 and 2002 and she lent me the scrapbook Jim Kerr had compiled – one that documented her life up until her retirement from Sydney University in 1993, which saved me many hours of research. I made an enthusiastic start on the biography. However misgivings set in when I began to comprehend the enormity of the undertaking. Joan knew everyone; her talks, lectures and conference papers numbered in the hundreds. Not to mention the book launches and exhibition openings at which she spoke. Her interests ranged over 19th-century art and architecture, photography, black & white art – and not just a selection of these, but the entire field of each creative category. She was developing an interest in 20th-century art, and Aboriginal women’s carvings, before illness stopped her.

When news of her illness became public, I thought of putting the project aside, hoping she would recover. But sadly that was not to be and she died in 2004. But the idea of writing her biography would not go away. Joan never gave up. Neither would I. AND I was concerned that she and her work were being forgotten.

There are today, regrettably, art-historians who are overlooking Joan in areas where she most definitely should be acknowledged. A good example is The Cambridge Companion to Australian Art (Cambridge University Press) published in 2011. Although the book claims to embrace cross-culturalism and the breaking down of old distinctions between art and craft, it makes no mention of either Joan Kerr or her work.[3]

Robert Holden and Jane Brummitt, authors of a 2011 biography of artist and book illustrator May Gibbs, say in the Introduction that, ‘Perhaps women are more susceptible to being erased or dismissed than men; after all, even someone as well-known in her own day as May Gibbs has proved elusive.’[4]

Perhaps I should have called this biography ‘lest we forget’.

Feminist scholars might have been successful in breaking down the entrenched dominance of men artists over art history but there is considerable leeway to be made up in the field of biography. Biographies of art historians do not take up much space on bookshop and library shelves anyway but those about women art historians lag behind those of their male counterparts. Actually, writing the biography of an art historian of either sex has its challenges. Whenever I told people what I was writing they invariably said: ‘Oh, how interesting. And who is the artist?

‘Not artist,’ I’d say. ‘Art historian. Quite different.’

An art historian is not only a scholar who must use words technically to contextualise often difficult or obscure works of art within time, place and cultural background, but also a writer who must use language creatively to describe, interpret and communicate the essence of such objects to the viewer and the reader. An art historian must ‘think’ with both mind and eye — become ‘myriad-sided’, as John Banville wrote in his novel The Untouchable, a fictionalised account of the life of art historian Anthony Blunt.[5]

Biography is often considered a hybrid – some would say ‘mongrel’ – discipline hovering between history and literature, with a need to reconcile what Virginia Woolf called the rainbow powers of re-creation and the granite-like body of discoverable fact.[6] Meaning that a biography must abide by the facts that are known with regard to your character’s life details and career milestones but it must also have a satisfying shape and structure, voice and mode of expression to bring the subject alive.

One technique that is particularly useful for biography is that of self-reflexivity.[7] Sharing the author’s problems and experiences with the reader shows, I QUOTE ROBERT ROSENSTONE: 'the written page less a place where wisdom is handed down from author to reader than as one where author and reader meet to make sense of the past'.[8] Using this idea I have, sparingly, introduced myself into the narrative, for example, the first time I visited the Kerrs in their home in Cremorne to begin the process of writing Joan’s biography.

In biography there are ethical issues to consider, such as the rightness and wrongness of the subject’s actions and their consequences.[9] Taking into account the respect the biographer owes her subject, I needed to ‘play the issue and not the person’.[10] Write as a biographer, not a hagiographer, Elizabeth Webby has observed. Achieving a balanced view of some of the more controversial incidents in Joan Kerr’s life was not easy. Material that might have adversely affected people’s feelings had to be treated with care, especially correspondence written in the heat of the moment.

The author must also be sensitive when conducting interviews with family members, colleagues and friends. Several key participants in Joan Kerr’s career who were ambivalent about her, or who had reasons for criticising her, preferred simply to describe her as ‘difficult’ and declined to elaborate. I accepted their choices and left it at that.

[1] Peter Watts, Record of the Funeral Service for Eleanor Joan Kerr, 1 March 2004, p.6; reproduced in ‘Joan Kerr: a tribute (1938-2004), Art Monthly Australia, no.169, May, 2004, p.18.

[2] Deirdre Bair quoted in Angela Bennie, ‘The Facts of Life’, Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21-22 May 2005, pp 22-23.

[3] Andrew Sayers, review of Jaynie Anderson ed, The Cambridge Companion to Australian Art, Cambridge University Press, 2011, Australian Book Review, February, no.338, 2012, pp 28-29.

[4] Robert Holden & Jane Brummitt, May Gibbs. More than a Fairly Tale, Hardie Grant Books, Australia, 2011.

[5] John Banville, The Untouchable, Picador/Macmillan, London, 1997

[6] Virginia Woolf, ‘The New Biography’, originally published 30 October 1927, New York Herald Tribune, reproduced in Collected Essays, Volume Four, The Hogarth Press, London, 1967, p.229

[7] In fact in my 2006 Review, I included a ‘self-reflexive’ section that described how I came to visit Joan Kerr and broach the subject of writing her biography, and then my anxieties as to how – and if – I could do it.

[8] Rosenstone ‘Introduction: practice and theory’, p.5

[9] Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, A Bullock, O Stallybrass and S Trombley eds, 2nd edition, Fontana Press, 1988, p 285

[10] Peter Watts, Funeral Oration for Joan Kerr, 1 March 2004

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