Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2019

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, by Amanda Curtin

I really like Amanda Curtin’s fiction, starting with my belated discovery of The Sinkings (2008) and then being bowled over by Elemental (2013), so I confess to a frisson of disappointment when I realised that her latest book was a biography of an artist I’d never heard of.  I shouldn’t have worried… Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is every bit as captivating as Curtin’s fiction.

It’s not actually true to say that I had never heard of Kathleen O’Connor.  I should admit instead that her name hadn’t registered with me, even though I had (of course!) visited the NGV’s 2013 exhibition ‘Australian Impressionists in France’ and seen a couple of her paintings.  What’s more, I even have the catalogue by Elena Taylor, which has a chapter on ‘Expatriates’ and beautiful full colour plates of ‘Luxembourg Gardens’ 1913 and ‘Two Cafe Girls’ c 1914.  (Neither of which, alas, are available online because the former is held at the Royal Perth Hospital Art Collection (!) and the latter is in private hands).

I shouldn’t really begin with the paintings, because, honestly, I read right through the whole book without ever venturing outside its pages, but I will mention here that this handsomely produced edition includes 13 full colour plates on gloss paper in the central section, and numerous B&W reproductions of O’Connor’s paintings and other memorabilia throughout the text.  But by the time I sat down to write this review it was too much of a temptation not to go searching with Google to admire O’Connor’s oeuvre on my nice big desktop screen.  (I have listed below the sources I found so that you can do this too).

The amazing thing about Kathleen O’Connor is that she was in Paris at all.  Like most young ladies of her time, she was expected to grow up and get married to some eligible chap from the social scene in Perth.  (Her parents had relocated there from New Zealand, for her father C.Y. O’Connor to take up a position as Engineer-in-Chief of Western Australia.) With no independent income of her own, Kathleen set off with her widowed mother and sister for a trip ‘home’ to see the UK and Irish relations, and then refused to go home with them.  She knew what she wanted to do, and she was determined to do it.  And true to the stereotypes of the artist-in-the-garret, (though she negotiated a small allowance from her family) she lived in penury, moving from one attic to another and getting by on the proverbial smell of an oily rag.

But she loved Paris. La Belle Époque was a wonderful time to be an artist in Paris, where the artists clustered in Montmartre and Kathleen claimed she could eat well on next to nothing in Paris in the years before the war: ‘five francs [about twenty-five cents] bought two good dinners.  She took lessons from numerous artists, visited galleries, and found subjects she could paint for free in the Luxembourg Gardens.  And although she was never financially independent of her family because sales of her art were never enough, she established a profile in the French art scene where her paintings were accepted for exhibitions and subsequently admired in the press.  Her emerging profile led her to submit her portfolio of designs for decorative items to Paul Poiret at Atelier Martine which led to work with Poiret, with la Maîtrise and with another of the grand department stores, Aux Trois Quartiers, on the boulevarde de la Madeleine. 

Galeries Lafayette Inside, from the 4th floor (Wikipedia*)

One of the aspects of this book that I really like is Curtin’s voice as she undertakes her research.  Here she is on the trail of Kathleen’s personal archive of textile designs:

The flagship Boulevard Haussmann store of Galeries Lafayette is one of Paris’ top tourist attractions.  Here, consumerism on a grand scale meets Art Nouveau palace.  I have to admit it’s breathtaking—the towering stained-glass dome crowning an atrium rising through three balconied floors of sparkling lights and sparkling merchandise, the grand staircase styled on the one in the Paris Opera House.  I become lost among the crowd on the ground floor, where paperbacks jostle with Birkin sacs and strollers and small platoons of tourists marshalled by flag-carrying guides.  I glance down at the instructions I’ve printed out, but I can no longer see the entrance I came in.  A friendly security officers takes pity on me and directs me to the staff elevator.

The opulence ends abruptly on the seventh floor, where the lift terminates. I check my directions again and locate the wooden staircase, and it’s up two flights to the ninth floor and a warren of utilitarian offices and my destination: the archives. (p.112)

(Compare that with my breathless naiveté in the food hall in 2005. We were wise to go in late autumn when the worst of the tourist season is over.)

I also loved Curtin’s rueful admissions that she has to resist the temptation to invent the missing pieces of Kathleen’s life.  An author of fiction can do this with impunity, but a biographer may not. (Well, as we know, they sometimes do, but I don’t like it, at least not when I can’t tell which is fact and which is invention.)

Anyway, as Curtin notes, however, Kathleen did—more than once—succumb to entreaties to return home, only to escape again as soon as she could rustle up the money for her passage.  So she was in Paris during WW1, and only just managed evacuation to London when the Germans occupied Paris in WW2.  The story of her escape with precious paintings in her luggage, only to lose the lot when the Germans bombed the ‘safe’ city of Bath, is sobering.  And these are not the only paintings missing: she sold numerous paintings that are unaccounted for, including the apocryphal ones that she chucked into the Fremantle Harbour when she couldn’t rustle up the import taxes on one of her trips home.  (See more about that, here).

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris is a wonderful book on many levels: it brings an under-appreciated Australian artist to new prominence; it tells a captivating story about an artist’s life; it shares the pain and the gains of the biographer’s art; and it recreates a Paris that is long, long gone, swamped by the tourist hordes and new developments.

See also Nathan Hobby’s review.

You can see a selection of Kathleen O’Connor’s works at the NGA, including the gorgeous dress that Amanda Curtin enthuses over in the chapter about O’Connor’s departure into textile design. Art Gallery NSW has only two, but the NGV has six, including a parasol which *pout* hasn’t been digitised yet.  I know from the references in the book that the Art Gallery of WA has a good few paintings, but their search function is a bit laborious so you’ll have to content yourself with this one.

The book cover design is by Carolyn Brown. (The back is beautifully designed too, but I am not sure about the copyright status of the O’Connor painting reproduced there, so I haven’t scanned it.)

Amanda Curtin ©Miles Llowry

Amanda Curtin blogs at Looking Up Looking Down, a blog I recommend you follow if you are interested in Australian books and writing, because she profiles WA authors including emerging authors prior to publication.  (It’s how I discovered Louise Allan, debut author of The Sisters’ Song, recently chosen for Summer Reading at my library and no doubt at others too).  Amanda also shares book club questions for discussion about her books, including this one.

Image credits:

Australian Impressionists in France by Elena Taylor is published by the NGV, 2013, ISBN 9780724103720, and from what I can see online, it’s still available.
Author: Amanda Curtin
Title: Kathleen O’Connor of Paris
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2018, 319 pages
ISBN: 9781925591644
Source: Greater Dandenong Libraries, Springvale branch


Responses

  1. Glad you enjoyed it too. You’ve brought back to me some of the highlights. And thanks for the link!

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    • Thank you for recommending it! It took a long time to come in at the library, and it’s still not available at my local. I shall of course, nag them, now that I’ve read it!

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  2. Ah Lisa, this is a lovely review—many thanks for engaging with Kate’s life and art, and my story. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. :-)
    This particular visit to Galeries Lafayette was in autumn, too! I think it just gets busier and busier. I don’t think I could handle Paris in summer (mind you, I can’t handle summer anywhere!)

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    • Yikes, in Autumn! The Spouse and I have always started in London in late September (because the weather is milder then than later on and I have childhood memories of bitter cold) and made our way to Europe in October, finishing up in early November. But maybe we might need to start scheduling Europe even later in the year!
      My thanks go to you for yet another unforgettable book, I really am surprised it wasn’t longlisted for the Stella because it’s so much in tune with the Stella principles, but awards are quixotic as we know…
      Am I right in thinking that you are working on a new novel?

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      • I was in Paris in September a few years ago and just about melted. The crowds were pretty fierce, too!
        Thank you, Lisa. Lovely of you to say. And yes, I have a novel in progress :-)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a fascinating and determined woman!

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  4. I loved it too, Lisa and was fortunate enough to review this book for Writing WA as their book of the month. And I love your review too, there is something about Amanda’s writing that makes me inarticulate, so I always appreciate someone who can articulate it for me!

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    • Hello Rashida, I hope you are hard at work on a new novel too?
      Is there a link to the review at Writing Wa that I can add to my review?
      Lisa

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      • https://www.writingwa.org/booksreviewed/2018-book-club-books/
        Dear Lisa, it was November’s Book of the Month and you’ll find the PDF if you click on the link. My new novel had to be put aside for a while, but I’m hoping to get back into it this year. Thanks for asking and I hope you are well.

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        • Well! That is a most useful link… thank you! I didn’t know much about WA writers, and their Book Club is a bit of a find:) I recognise most of the LitFic authors as WA, are all of them from WA?

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          • Lisa, yes, they only review WA writers, so an absolutely vital service and very useful if looking for WA writers. I also reviewed Alice Nelson’s gorgeous book, The Children’s House, which I recommend to you if you haven’y already found it. The site posts short reviews of books published in WA, then picks a Book of the Month which includes book club notes. I do some of their reviews.

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            • Yes, I’ve read and reviewed that, it’s a lovely book.
              I know about most releases, it’s the ones from UWAP and Fremantle Press that I don’t always hear about…

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  5. Thanks, I didn’t know this author

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  6. […] (1869-1947) reminded me of Kathleen O’Connor, the Perth artist whose life story by Perth author Amanda Curtin I recently … Hodgkins was also a successful expatriate painter who travelled widely, visiting France, Morocco, […]

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  7. […] Curtin commented on its importance for the subject of her book about the Australian expat artist Kathleen O’Connor of Paris.  Similarly, the Kiwi modernist artist Frances Hodgkins (who I discovered on my recent visit to […]

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  8. […] Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, by Amanda Curtin […]

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