The Chamber of Musical Curiosities Podcast: Jennifer Higgie
In episode 11 of the podcast, Artistic Director Paul Kildea is joined by his good friend, the Australian writer, art critic and editor Jennifer Higgie. The pair start by reminiscing about the time they've spent together in London as they go through Jennifer Higgie’s journey from a visual artist in Canberra to the editor of Frieze Magazine to book writer.
They also discuss one of Paul's favourite books by Higgie, Bedlam, before engaging in a discussion about her most recently published book, The Mirror and The Palette. Jennifer Higgie then proceeds to give the listener a sneak peek into her upcoming novel, whose current working title is The Other side, Women, Art and Spirituality.
Listen to the full episode below.
Paul: Welcome to the podcast. I'm here today talking to Jennifer Higgie, my old chum, my old heart, you mucker, you reader of my stuff, me of yours, my former housemate, where I remember in London we seem to live on a diet of frittata and the Gilmore Girls. And we lived next door to the tenor Toby Spence and I can't remember, did you ever hear him practice?
Jennifer: Yes, I heard him practice all the time. And it was especially lovely when we were in the garden in summer and Toby was practicing leader in his, in his living room and it would filter out into our garden. It was beautiful. Where were you when it was happening?
Paul: I was about to say you're coming up with the diplomatic, I'm going to see Toby next week excuse. Of course I'm not going on the record. I never, he reminded me very much of my lovely friend Andrew Watts, who sings the most complex and difficult operas by modern composers and his way of learning scores was to get a highlighter pen out on his part in the score and say, right, that's all done. And that was preparation. So I was tarring Toby with the same brush. But anyway, we did have that lovely time together.
Jennifer: We did.
Paul: And I'm going to, first of all, ask you to do two things for us. Which is that, because especially in New South Wales and Victoria and the ACT, your old stomping ground, we're in severe lockdown, would like to live vicariously through you. So perhaps you could describe your scene and the photo you sent me only 15 minutes ago.
Jennifer: Oh no, I feel riddled with guilt telling you where I am. But I do live in London and we did go through a really horrible lockdown through a London winter. So I feel like I deserve it. I'm on the Greek island of Amorgos in the Cyclades and uh, I'm in a little apartment with a friend and we have a terrace overlooking the sea. And yeah, so I'm here for six weeks writing, because I'm working on my new book. So I thought I might as well do it here as opposed to anywhere else. So, and no, it's hell, it's hell. I hate it.
Paul: We'll land on what this new book is. But before we do so, I want to ask about the previous book that came out not so long ago anyway. But I'll get on to that via, I suppose, an explanation for how this visual artist from Canberra can end up with her own practice writing these magnificent books. But for a very long stretch of time, as editor of Frieze Magazine, which is the bible of contemporary visual arts throughout the world. So, what's that journey from Canberra to where you are today?
Jennifer: Well, I don't think anyone can ever plan a life, can they? Because I never would have thought when I was at the Canberra School of Arts studying painting that, you know, I would become an editor of an art magazine. And it's so funny the journeys that we go through in the course of a life. So I got a fellowship from, I actually went to the Victoria College of the Arts after Canberra School of Art and did an MA in painting there. And then I was lucky enough to win the Murdoch fellowship from there to go to London in 1997 I think it was. And uh yeah, and that was for nine months. And uh I'm still living in London despite going back to, well in normal times, going back to Australia at least once a year. But I think I've always been a secret writer when I was at art school as well as being a painter. And so when I got to London, I was having a crisis with my visual practice. And so I started writing more and more and I was worried that I was going to be 100-year-old waitress because I was doing a lot of waitressing once my scholarship run out. And so I thought, well, you know, if you go somewhere where you don't know anyone and you didn't go to art school or anything like that, you can make a fool of yourself. So I took that secret writing and made it public and, and very gradually started getting commissions, writing about art and I loved Frieze Magazine. So I contacted them and started doing reviews and and then it sort of went up from there and and they offered me a three-day-a-week reviews editor job. And uh yeah, so I sort of learned on the hoof really.
Paul: It's funny, young musicians will often say to me, you know, I'm going to be a professional musician and, and I say, look, it's fantastic, it's a tough old life, you haven't thought about the security of acting instead? And I feel like that with painting and with writing, I'm a painter, but I'm going to get the security of having a writing career instead.
Jennifer: Exactly. I mean, it was, it did seem a bit daft really now I think about it, but you know, it was more - at least you could write something, you could write 700 words and get paid £150 fairly rapidly. Whereas if you're working on a painting show, that can take years and what are you meant to survive on in the meantime. So, you know, I mean, everyone I knew was being a waiter at that point or you know, doing fairly low-level jobs and I mean there was one cafe that we all worked in Soho, which sadly has closed now called Aurora. But basically, it should have had Australia Council funding because every writer or artist or musician that came to London seemed to get a shift in that cafe. It was really great.
Paul: Well, I'd like to talk about some of your books and I'd like to start not with the one that I first came to love and admire, Bedlam, but instead your most recent published book and it does so many beautiful things or you do so many beautiful things in it. I'm starting with the title basically, because it's one of those titles that straight away tells you the whole story and none of the story and makes you want to dive in. And of course, the title is The Mirror and The Palette. The absolute beautiful conceit and the wonderful hook, if you like, is that of course women for centuries weren't allowed to paint other models. And so the whole idea of self portraiture using both the mirror and the palette developed. So, talk a little bit about this because it seems, as I say, a really hugely attractive idea, but one that you would have thought would have been explored in huge detail and as it happens, it turns out not to have been.
Jennifer: Yeah, I became really interested in self portraiture actually through my, funny enough, through my Instagram account because I set myself a task of finding a woman artist who'd been born on every day of the year and to sort of, bow down to her in a way because as mentioned, I went to art school in the eighties and nineties and despite a lot of really brilliant teachers at these colleges, the artworks by women that we were taught about were mainly feminist ones made from the seventies onwards. And we weren't taught at all that there were great women artists working in the Renaissance for example, or in 16th century Holland or in the Baroque era. And so this for me was a really remarkable discovery and you know, there has been a lot of amazing feminist art, art historians who have explored this area. You know, obviously people like Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin and others. And there's also a brilliant book on self-portraiture by women called Seeing Ourselves by Frances Borzello that came out in 1998. But that was a very uh sort of encyclopedic take on the subject. And I was interested in doing a more idiosyncratic and personal exploration of the subject and just looking at the stories behind these women and how they weave in and out of history and how against all odds when these women had absolutely no political agency, they were barred from academies, from guilds, they weren't allowed to do apprenticeships in the Renaissance, they weren't allowed to work on scaffolds because it was considered too dangerous. How did they forge a career despite, you know, these huge hurdles put before them and many of them were really brilliant soul portraitists because they were always available and they could paint themselves when they weren't allowed access to a live model or in a life class. So you've got incredible artists like, for example, in the Renaissance often is Sofonisba Anguissola, who was, she had an extraordinary life. She was born in Cremona to an aristocratic family and probably worked with Michelangelo and she was the most prolific self-portraitist between Durer and Rembrandt and and why didn't I know about her? So the book came from that curiosity really.
Paul: Yeah. And a self inquisition in some senses. As part of this kind of scrapbook approach or if you like this tapestry that you so, you talk about kaleidoscopes in the book. And I found that really interesting because you were drawn to the idea of kaleidoscopes as it applies to your own life. Because you think that a linear appraisal of a life is such a hard thing to do. And the other part of it that really intrigued me, and I'd never really thought about, was the idea that the surrealists would of course, find the idea of a kaleidoscopic view of the world really, really germane to their own art. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.
Jennifer: Yeah, I think that one of the brilliant things happening around art history now is that the idea of a very neat, linear, sequential idea of one art idea moving into another is now sort of slightly thrown to the winds and art history is much messier than we've been led to believe. The traditional art histories were, they were written by white men about other white men of a certain class. And of course women have always made art, people of colour have always made art, people of different classes, people of different training, they've all made art. So it makes much more sense to look at history as this very kaleidoscopic, fragmented, it turns back on itself, it repeats itself, it moves forward in jolts and stutters. Then there might be 10 different artists working at a certain point in time. All exploring a well from 10 different perspectives. So it's not this leak, neat idea of art history. And the surrealists did acknowledge this, but then they also had their own blind spots. Because at the very beginning of surrealism, when Andre Breton wrote his surrealist manifesto, despite the fact that a lot of women surrealists were working in the field, he presented it as a very white and male narrative. And of course, that's been blown apart as well. And I think to my mind this is really exciting because this idea of art history as being kaleidoscopic is it embraces so many more perspectives. It's a much richer and more complicated story than the one we were led to believe.
Paul: Your world and mine overlap in the form of this particular entrancing figure, Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac who was heiress to the Singer fortune and was a very gifted painter in her own right. But one of the things that she did in this amazing succession of husbands, two princes, the second one gay and much older and so they both experienced this very convenient blanc marriage. But one of the things that she did in the 1890s was to found her own salon in her very beautiful place in Paris. And it struck me that the idea of the salon was, throughout the 19th century, a far more of a safe space for women than the outside world. But it did mean that entree into that salon came with either wealth or in many very particular instances, talent and I just wonder how attractive you find those ideas of these figures and these salons as a safe space for women artists.
Jennifer: The idea of the salon is, or rather the fact of the salon is such a rich history. I mean saying that I was immediately thought of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in the late sort of 18th century. And she was, you know, she came from fairly humble, a fairly humble background, her mother was a hairdresser and her father was a failed painter and she was pretty much self-taught and she became one of the great painters of the late 18th century in France and she was Marie Antoinette's favourite painter. She painted over 30 paintings of the French royal family and had to flee when the revolution happened. But she apparently ran an incredibly brilliant and lively salon In Paris in the late 18th century that was full of painters and writers and she was also very clever at knowing that these salons were ways of bringing incredibly interesting people together. But also they were a way of promoting her own work and getting new commissions. You know, she was a hard-nosed professional as well. And so these salons were ways of women promoting not only a sort of female solidarity, but also of getting work. So there were very practical reasons for them as well.
Paul: And indeed that's the case with Princesse Polignac who of course commissions Ravel, Satie, Stravinsky, even earlier on, Poulenc, Debussy. So she had an amazing kind of eye for the interesting, more avant-garde artists at the time. But then of course her own self-portraiture and the artworks that she produced, and was allowed to do, in this rather safe space was a really impressive marriage of ideas of commerce and aesthetics
Jennifer: At that point in Paris in the late 19th, early 20th century, it was such a rich outpouring. I mean you've got Impressionism happening at that time as well, which was one of the first, you could say gender balanced art movements to happen. You've got great artists like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. But then you've also got brilliant working-class painters such as Suzanne Valadon on who there's a wonderful cross over here because she, Erik Satie had a passionate affair with Suzanne Valadon. As far as I know, it was the last known affair that we know that he had and he courted her with a necklace of sausages and they played and they sailed boats together in the Tuileries Garden and he wanted to be with her forever but she needed someone a bit wealthier. And it was for Suzanne Valadon apparently when they broke up that he, he wrote vexations which wasn't really performed until John Cage resurrected it decades later. So there were all these wonderful sort of weavings in and out of stories and biographies and intersections of music and painting that were happening at this time. I'd love to time travel and visit her, her salon for example, and have a glass of wine and eavesdrop. Wouldn't that be great?
Paul: Madeira? Madeira I think.
Jennifer: Madeira, OK.
Paul: We spoke a few weeks ago about your new book and you pretended not to rub it in that you were writing it in Greece will leave that to one side. And you asked me at the time as well, and this is a way of introducing the topic. But you did ask me about composers who shared this same interest in mysticism and magic and how it affected their craft. And of course, I jumped to Scriabin. But I didn't think about the music of Nikolai Obukhov who escaped Russia after the revolution, um sets up shop in Paris and everything that he wrote thereafter was somehow infused with his love of mysticism and magic. And I found out about him in that very serendipitous way that one does. Once, you know, the topic has been raised, suddenly everything you open or everything someone sends to you is somehow linked to it. And we have a young member of our FutureMaker scheme at Musica Viva Matt Laing, who just said to me, do you know this guy and you know, his music, it's just so interesting and it's 30 years ahead of its time. And so then now I've been obsessed with this composer ever since. So I just say that as a way of linking our worlds once more and not just through the salon and would love you to talk a little bit about what you're doing in this new book. And some of the figures that it throws up.
Jennifer: Well, the new book is, its working title is The Other Side, Women, Art and Spirituality. And so I've been looking at mid 19th century again, salons in a way, and seances of women who would group together and they were very invested in spiritualism and they would contact the other side via mediums within the group. But then they would, many of them were really brilliant artists and they were channelling spirits, so they said, in order to create these really extraordinary paintings. And these women include people like Georgiana Houghton, who was the focus of a big exhibition at the Courtauld exhibition a couple of years ago in Sweden. We've got Hilma af Klint, who's obviously the focus of the amazing show on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales at the moment. And there were lots of other women. And what's very interesting about this is that a lot of these ideas that they were interested in, around theosophy, for example, I mean, there was so - spiritualism which came from the United States, a lot of these ideas really influenced modernist ideas around abstraction, especially around the early 20th century. So you've got artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian and Paul Klee and Malevich, all of whom were interested in spiritualism. And there were big crossovers between a lot of what these women were doing in the mid 19th century and what these modernist artists were doing in the early 20th century, but their story has pretty much been written out of the art historical narrative. And when abstraction began to be taught in the early 20th century, this idea of the 'Spirit World' was sort of erased from the narrative and it was seen as around formalism. The idea that these artists were really exploring colour, line, tone and not the spirit world. And so again, it's this idea of a female energy being erased from from this art historical narrative. And then I sort of leap forward into the 20th century and the 21st centuries and looking at the revival of interest in things around, say, astrology or feminist witchcraft or botany and herbalism. You know, I think that everyone is feeling very worn down by the state of the world and people looking at new ways of healing ourselves and the planet. And so a lot of these ideas are very current, I think now.
Paul: It's funny, it's not simply that they were erased, they were often mocked as well, and I'm thinking about Madame Arcati and Blithe Spirit, and she becomes a figure of fun rather than someone with, pursuing something that was thought to be very real in the 19th century.
Jennifer: Absolutely. And I'm working from a position of curiosity rather than, you know, I'm not evangelical about what happened necessarily, or I don't really know what happened, but what I do know is that the work that a lot of these women produced was really extraordinary. And at the moment I'm reading a biography of Madame Blavatsky, of course, one of the main founder of Theosophy in New York in the 1850s. And, you know, she was a remarkable person, a Russian aristocrat who fled a marriage, who travelled the world to, it's very hard to know if what she said about her life was true ornot, but the fact of the matter is she was an incredibly deep thinker around a lot of these issues. She lived in a life of absolute independence in the 19th century at a time when it was very difficult for women to do so. She also apparently had a 20 year affair um that she tried to cover up later with an opera singer. And she was a very talented pianist as well. And she said, hard to know whether it's true or not, that she worked as a concert pianist in London in the 1850s in between also working as an acrobatic rider and a jockey, and she apparently this, I've forgotten his name, the opera singer that she travelled around with. And she apparently said that he was one of the greatest opera singers of the 19th century, but no musicologists can find any trace of him. So whether he was just written out of the music history books or not, I'm not quite sure what the truth of the matter is, but she was a firebrand and she led a life of great adventure and exploration. And she was also very brilliant, despite her sometime rather casual relationship with the truth.
Paul: I'd love you to talk about the slightly different approach that you're taking to this book from the one that's just come out. But I'd like to do that in an unusual way, I suppose, which is to read a bit from your first book, Bedlam. And we'll take the conversation from there. And so this section is quite near the end of the book.
'My hands are as listless as my mind is overextended. I cannot draw. A pencil would be far too heavy for the frailty that permeates every inch of my poor fingers, those narrow brown things that dangle from my palms. And I have such import in the translation of the images in my mind. I wonder what I would do if I were to lose them. If some devil were to sever them and toss them away, would my toes adapt to holding the brush, my mouth. Would I become a writer in images, a madman.'
It's one of the most beautiful passages about a very, very interesting figure. But it seems to me that you do so much in this book, it's by no means a biography of Richard Dadd. But I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how you came to write this book, the voice that you settled on in telling this remarkable story, a little bit about Dadd himself. And then also how it influenced your views on biography and history and writing about important artistic figures.
Jennifer: I mean, it's it's actually I haven't read that book that I wrote for a very long time. So it's like, it's an interesting message. But it's funny actually because I wrote a lot of that book when I was on this island that I'm on at the moment, you know, a long time ago. And I think being on a Greek island is very encouraging to spirit worlds because if you read Homer, you know, figures from mythology drift in and out of focus all the time. And when you look across the sea, you know, just this morning, islands suddenly appear where that didn't seem to be islands before. So I think this is a very magical place to be writing these things. But I was, I fell in love with Richard Dadd when I um many years ago, I went to an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London and it was on Victorian fairy painting and I didn't know anything about Victorian fairy painting. I mean, my idea of fairies was this rather saccharine idea that we have of them now, but in the mid 19th century, fairy painting was huge business in Victorian Britain. And at that time, which was obviously very censorious about what you could or could not represent, if you whacked fairy wings on the back of a human being, well, then, in a sense, they were given permission to do whatever they wanted. Explore other realms, manifest in different ways. And at that point in time, the 19th century was obviously going, undergoing this huge industrialisation and this huge moment of urban change, when a lot of the old fairy tales and folk tales and myths that had so thrived in the countryside were being supplanted by modernity, by the speed of travel, by inventions such as the X-ray when suddenly the invisible could be made visible. So it gave a sort of urgency to this idea of fairy painting and you've got some of the greatest painters of the day trying to outdo each other in visions. And Richard Dad was one of the most gifted. He was an absolutely brilliant, sensitive, talented young man. And in the mid 19th century he went on a grand tour. He accompanied this rather pompous mayor called Sir Thomas and they traveled through Europe and the Middle East. And I mean, probably in the way that we would talk about it now, Richard Dadd, he was a deeply sensitive young man. He was given to mental health issues. He probably became overstimulated and when he was in Egypt, he became a devotee of the Egyptian God, Osiris and believed that he was channeling instructions from Osiris and very tragically when he returned to London, he murdered his beloved father who was a great supporter of him. But he believed that an evil spirit had inhabited his father and he was put in Bedlam Hospital for the rest of his life, the next 40 years. And it was in Bedlam Hospital. They were actually quite enlightened governors of the mental hospital and he was given paints and he created some of the most extraordinary paintings of the late 19th century and in these images he explained he, in a sense, invented his own mythologies in the Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke. It's a painting that he worked on for 10 years. It's tiny, it's on view, actually at the moment, in Tate Britain in London, and it's the most incredibly detailed, microscopically observed painting of a fairy world. But it's not a fairy world in terms of something saccharine or light-hearted. It's as if the Earth itself is coming alive. And so when I saw this exhibition all those years ago, it was an absolute, my mind was blown. And at that time I was looking at a lot of contemporary art and this exhibition of 19th century fairy paintings just, you know, far exceeded anything I've seen in any of the contemporary art galleries. And so I became particularly obsessed with Richard Dadd and this journey that he went on, that he leaves London when he's perfectly sane, by all accounts. And then he returns, you know, a madman. What happened during that year? And he did write quite a few letters, which I managed to read in the British Library and in the V&A Library, all you can go on is these few letters he wrote, and also the paintings that he made during that trip, and also later in the asylum. And so I thought the best way to respond to this story is imaginatively. To sort of respond to like with like and so that's how I wrote my book.
Paul: It's funny, you know, very well that I've been kicking around ideas for what I'm going to write next on a large scale. And what approach I'm going to take to it. And it's interesting I was discussing this with the novelist Andrea Goldsmith last week. And just sort of, said, it's really hard, you know, whether to view historical subject with a novelist's eyes or with a historian's eyes. And, you know, I've come out very much with the historian's eyes. And she just said very simply, well, if you do it as a novelist, you can put anything in as long as you can prove it didn't happen. Whereas a historian will always say, I need to prove that this happened before we feel happy enough to include that detail. And it seems to me that you, you were only limited by your imagination because you've done all the research, you've immersed yourself in it. And then you jumped off the edge with his voice and the amazing circumstances of his life that produced this really stunning art.
Jennifer: Yeah, I think that I mean, obviously, it's about Richard Dadd and I used his name and it's called Bedlam, which was the asylum he was placed in. But at the same time, it was very important to me that it was called a novel because I'm not claiming any, you know, it's written in the first person. So, I'm writing it from his perspective. And I think I was going through a particularly intense time in my life when I wrote that novel and that really inflected the voice. So, I'm not claiming that everything in this novel is true. It's a novel. But at the same time, it's an imaginative response to someone who moved me in both his life and art.
Paul: Talk a little bit about one of the projects as a way almost of bringing out delightful conversation to an end. One of the projects that you were working on when we were living together was in fact the script, the film script, the screenplay of this beautiful, beautiful book. How did you go about that? Because you were a different person from when you wrote Bedlam. And also the screenplay has to obviously fulfil very, very many different things without necessarily the canvas, the particular canvas that you are provided for in writing a book, but very much a different canvas as well.
Jennifer: The screenplay, and this is the big mental leap you have to do when you write screenplays, is that you have to convey the truth of a scene through an image, not just through words. And obviously, the book is all words and the screenplay, I had to write images into it. And how do you convey the richness and complexity of what is happening in someone's mind via an image rather than a sentence. And so, you know, that's something that I'm still really struggling with that, you know, I think initially I tended to overwrite because I depend on words, but also, as my training was as a painter, I'm also deeply invested in what an image can communicate.
Paul: Well. I love your writing, I love the way your mind works.
Jennifer: Bright, I think you call.
Paul: Well, it's always just beautiful just hearing where you're going from and it makes me sad for the days of frittata and Gilmore Girls, but very glad that we experienced that together. Come back and visit us sometime. When is that going to be?
Jennifer: I'm going to be back as soon as I can. I can't believe it's been a year and a half, or more than a year and a half that I've been in Australia and I hate that. So pretty much as soon as the borders reopen, I'm back there and you know, I so want to see my mother in Canberra and my family, my sister, my niece and nephew and dear friends such as yourself. So yeah, I'll be back as soon as I can. Yeah, I can't wait.
Paul: Jinx! Jennifer Higgie, thank you so much.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me. It's a great honor.