Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2021

Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe

If you’re about my age, you’ll remember the brouhaha* over the purchase of the Jackson Pollock painting, ‘Blue Poles‘.  It was purchased by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam for $1.3 million dollars, now only the price of an ordinary suburban house in Melbourne or Sydney, but back then in 1973 it was an enormous sum of money.  The National Gallery of Australia hadn’t even been built, but it had a budget for collections, and Gough himself had to authorise the purchase because the cost was over the $1 million threshold.  And #understatement there was uproar…

Blue Poles (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia tells me that

The painting has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery, for both its value as a major work of 1950s abstract expressionism, and its significance in Australian politics and history. Estimates of the painting’s present value vary widely, from $100 million to $350 million, but its increased value has at least shown it to have been a worthwhile purchase from a financial point of view.


This painting, a potent symbol of our cultural history, now has another claim to fame: it’s the narrator of a strange, mesmerising novella by Sydney author Angela O’Keeffe.

The book is an amazing feat of imagination.  Consider: how can an author tell the story of a painting, narrated by that painting?  (Assuming you can conceptualise the idea of a painting having the capacity to narrate its own story anyway).  What does it know, in order to relate its story? The first conception of itself in the artist’s mind?  The gradual emergence of the work from the materials used? Its exhibition, its storage, its transportation, the places where it hangs before it reaches its final destination?  Scraps of information about its owners, the people who view it, the guards and the guides who say things in its presence, or whose behaviour enables inferences to be made?

But then there’s the indefinable essence of the painting, the question of what it means to the artist who created it, and the ones who trade in it; finance and buy it; think it’s important for Australians to have it and those who think that Whitlam should have bought Australian art instead.  There’s its place alongside Indigenous art which has a history going back for millennia.  ‘Blue Poles’ is a huge painting, 2.1 m x 4.86 m.  It’s not possible to ignore.  But what does it say about us, that it has such a prominent place in our national gallery?

Part 2 of the novella is narrated by Alyssa, who is an assistant restorer of the painting.  She’s too young to comprehend the sense of betrayal, loss and lifelong disillusionment that The Dismissal caused, but she does understand that her father was hurt by the ousting of the man who made such a profound statement about the importance of art.  She also understands that politics is not as irrelevant as might be supposed by some.

Alyssa is doing her PhD on the women in Pollock’s life: Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler. Alyssa is a feminist, who’s convinced that these women, like other women artists throughout history, were overshadowed by Pollock’s fame.  She thinks he wasn’t worthy of that fame, and she’d like to find something that ‘proves’ that.  She knows that there are footprints visible in the first layers of paint. In her narrative, she addresses the painting…

Are you aware of it?  It is mostly obscured by layers and lines of paint.  My friend told me about it when I first got the job in the storage room.  She knew exactly where in you it was situated, but I would never let her tell me.  I wanted to find it for myself.  But in all the times I visited you I never did.

I believed that finding that footprint would prove that Jackson was unfit for the status he’d acquired — prove it to me, that was.  You see, the new freedom that I carried around was underpinned by a belief that women artists were historically undervalued, under-recognised.  It’s impossible to deny it.  But just because a thing is true doesn’t mean that the way you go about proving it — that is, the dogged obsession that becomes like a tic — is the best way.  I knew all along that finding that footprint was no proof of anything other than that Jackson painted shoeless.  From the start, there was nothing rational about that search. (p.73)

These meditations on art, artists, gender, politics, the purpose and meaning of her research, and her personal life have an intimacy that is irresistible.  One of her disappointments is conveyed so vividly that readers will feel her devastation too.

Night Blue is one of the most interesting works of fiction that I’ve read so far this year, and it’s a real treat for those who love fiction about art and artists.

*I had never heard the word ‘brouhaha‘ until Margaret Whitlam used it (in a different context).  It’s one of my favourite words to express my opinion of the tabloid journalism which plagues our news services these days.

Author: Angela O’Keeffe
Title: Night Blue
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760675, pbk., 141 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge and good bookshops everywhere

Image credit: Blue Poles (digitalization of Blue Poles (original title: Number 11, 1952), an abstract painting from 1952 by the American artist Jackson Pollock, Wikipedia) “By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35971938”


Responses

  1. Sounds like one I’d like. I do love books about art and artists and I also like narration by inanimate objects.
    I love that word too. A favourite used by nanna. I always think of her when I hear that word.

    Like

    • Hi Theresa, I know from my desultory attendance at writers’ workshops that writing from the PoV of various items (spoons, trees, socks) is a common writing task, but to sustain that into a work of genius like this is #TryingNotToGush amazing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s what’s drawing me to it. It’s not a technique that is always done well. Plus, you don’t generally gush and I’m sensing some of that here!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I want to read this at some point. I do like novels about art and artists (Australian literature seems to be filled with them) but I’ve got a lot going on and will wait to see if this was turns up in the Freo library. I remember seeing Blue Poles when I was 13 on a family road trip to Coffs Harbour, via Canberra…the memory of standing in front of it has stayed with me because I was fascinated by its strangeness (all those splashes!) but also because I think it was the first time I realised art didn’t have to look realistic!

    Like

    • Can you request a book that the library doesn’t have?

      Like

      • No idea. I haven’t been to the library in months and months. They’re pretty good at getting all new Oz releases though.

        Like

        • If you go online and search their catalogue and it’s not there, chances are there will be a popup asking you if you would like the library to get the book for you.

          Like

          • There isn’t a pop up. Mind you, the library is in a temp location (and been downsized I think) because a brand new one, much closer to my address, is being built. It was supposed to be ready this time last year, but Covid has delayed everything. Think they’re looking at December now.

            Like

            • Ah well, it will all be beautiful and new and hi-tech when it opens!

              Like

  3. Yes! I remember the brouhaha! (and I love the word, too). My father was ropeable (another great word) for some time, and shared his views over the dinner table regularly. Being a young, naive teenager, I was heavily influenced by his opinion. When I finally saw the painting for the first time, I was a bit overwhelmed, and also disappointed that my father was wrong (and had not lived to see it, so that he could appreciate every penny spent on it).
    I’m looking forward to reading this book!

    Like

    • I hope you enjoy it:)
      It’s made me want to make a trip to Canberra to revisit it…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have picked this up and put it down a few times now at work. Your restrained gush may have tipped me over the edge too!

    Like

  5. How fascinating! I was unaware of the brouhaha (though I know and love the word!) but it sounds like the purchase was a very good investment…

    As for the book, I’m very intrigued – sounds most unusual and I do like books about art and artists, particularly with the clever use of narrative!

    Like

    • LOL the first, most chastening thing a traveller from Australia discovers, is that the rest of the world is not the slightest bit interested in anything Australia does (including the purchase of expensive world renowned art!). When we first started travelling, we spent six weeks knowing nothing at all about what was going on at home. Now we can access Australian news websites online, it’s different, but still, as far as the international media is concerned, Australia doesn’t exist.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Another recommendation I can’t resist. Fortunately, my library has a copy … Thank you, Lisa :-)

    Like

  7. […] Lisa at ANZLitlovers has also reviewed this one. […]

    Like

  8. I’ve reviewed this one now, Lisa. I think you liked it more than me.

    Like

  9. […] Night Blue, by Angela O’Keeffe | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

    Like

  10. […] like novels that feature art and artists.  One of the cleverest ones I’ve come across is Night Blue (2021) by Angela O’Keeffe, with narration by the painting itself.  The painting is none other […]

    Like


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: