Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Book review Letters and Liars: Norman Lindsay and the Lindsay Family by Joanna Mendelssohn Angus and Robertson RRP $19.95

Letters and Liars is not another book about dead artists. The reader's inner voyeur pries, page by page, into the minds and obsessions of the extended Lindsay family, males and females. Gossip is the artworld's lubricant - think of the fracas surrounding the appointment of major public gallery directors, the annual argie-bargie of the Archibald and the competing biographies of Brett Whitely. Letters and Liars is all the more compelling as the Lindsay family despised their contemporaries' polite, limiting, conventions with one reservation: for all that they delighted in exposing heterosexual fantasies of "victorious virgins", the Lindsays, as a group, appear to be somewhat coy/elusive about homosexuality.

Sharp-eyed information on how the system worked/works abounds. Indeed, with Daryl Lindsay as a protagonist, what narrative could be innocent of the strategic importance of institutional power structures? Mendelssohn describes Daryl Lindsay as "one of the great operators of the Australian art scene" (p 8) Whilst he moved towards professionalising institutional discourse and curating of art in Australia, he injected a particular poison - self righteous snobbery coupled to an unwillingness to engage with ideas from the outfield and margins - into the veins of the Australian public gallery and its singular aroma still lingers about the corpse.
Mendelssohn lets Daryl's siblings condemn his blend of nepotism, arbitrary judgement and selfishness: to desire and demand the best and condemn out of hand all that did not pleasure him. Art professionals have never dared to finger Daryl Lindsay with such precision.
Chapter 16 is especially informative. In person and via legal documents, Norman plots the preservation of his artworks as testament to his own genius and generosity, with both the National Trust and the University of Melbourne. The different responses of the Art Gallery of New South Wales to nurturing of the reputations of Grace Cossington-Smith and Norman Lindsay in the early 1960s are interesting to ponder.
However fashion and seasons move and in 1995 Norman finally "came home" to the premier institution of his adopted state - alongside his siblings - in The Legendary Lindsays exhibition. As Mendelssohn notes, flagging the distorting and euphemising processes of "public history", this group exhibition would have been totally impossible when the volatile and deeply jealous artists were all alive. Such is the ongoing mystique of the Lindsay name that the AGNSW had no qualms in selling this exhibition as a highpoint in its curatorial program, and backing up the exhibition with a sumptuous and thoroughly researched and illustrated catalogue.

This voyeuristically pleasurable, but responsibly informed, exposé of art world dealings is heightened by ironic authorial commentaries on how to play the game.
"Australia in the twentieth centuries embraced the European conventions applicable to artists. These were typified by a wild bohemian youth spent providing some kind of interest for socially well- connected powerbrokers, followed by a relatively affluent middle age, and the respect of governments when old." (p 127)... the legend of the artist as super-brain, one of the golden oldie myths of art history. From Giotto to Picasso, artists have supposedly emerged as total geniuses in their childhood. It is a modern version of the Greek Goddess Athena springing fully formed out of the head of Zeus. And just as believable. (p 43)
Yet more careful reading reveals that there are limits to what is deconstructed. Both publishers and author have learned well the Lindsays' particular skill of seeming to reveal, of promising insight, but retaining total control. Although we are told how the Lindsays attained cultural centrality through self-positioning, there is no discussion of what role was played by publishers - longstanding supporters of the Lindsay fame machine - critics and galleries or why the Australian public so meekly accepted the Lindsays' own definition of themselves as unique. What Antipodean lack did the Lindsay simulacra service? Australian commercial publishing's tendency to deal in only the most obvious and conventional is seen in the neat double game of both dissecting the Lindsay mystique whilst serving the public's insatiable craving for Lindsayana.

The generalist - rather than professional - market for Liars is emphasised by its one undoubtedly annoying fault, the lack of an index. One hopes that this omission was imposed onto an unwilling author! That the reader is then reliant upon memory or the paths chosen by the author preserves the correct mystique of the Lindsay legend and the author as all-knowing, thus reducing the book's usefulness as springboard for further research. As its title continually reminds us - Letters and Liars is an uncertain map. The witty knowing author is will o' the wisp, as much as tour guide. Rather than "peeling an onion" - as the second chapter is entitled - the reader stumbles through a maze of mirrors. Simplistic desires to find the Lasseter's Reef/Temple of Doom named the "truth" leads the reader astray.
Partly Mendelssohn walks beside her readers, taking them through her research: the process of locating, detecting and encoding the "lies". Equally the author remains one step ahead. The Lindsays demonstrated that power over information permits control over others' perceptions and judgement. Despite the formidable opening skirmish with "Mrs Shaw" - imaged by Mendelssohn as the archetypal artists' relative with a possessive investment/protection in famous relatives - Mendelssohn becomes increasingly party to family processes. Cherishing, partly revealing, only to hide: Letters and Liars is biography as striptease - entirely appropriate given the stereotype of Norman as imager of sex - and the Lindsay family's general bent towards pitching aesthetics and/or hedonism, (in various measures and in contexts from Norman's bouncing nudes to Robert Lindsay's Belgravian refinements of decor), against puritanism and hypocrisies.

However the secrets so artfully played with are more disquieting than a "good goss". That the author herself becomes a de facto protagonist in the narrative brings an intimate urgency into positioning of women in the core of cultural fantasy, the myth of the genius. The Lindsay women are a lexicon of enacted female stereotypes: Rose is the "slut", Mary the "housekeeper", Isabel the "hysteric/irrational" and Ruby the preaching dog, the female artist. Family letters reveal how far these women manipulated these roles to help themselves, Justines and Juliettes who never remained on their proper sides of the great demarcation of good and bad girls. Rose grew into yet another figure of maternal probity for the eternally adolescent Norman to elude. She was a singular historical figure, who expressed working class Victorian sexual pragmatism, but espoused no party politics other than sensual gratification. Later she played the games of the dominant classes - who once cold-shouldered her - by using archives and libraries as a tool to posthumously undermine her enemies.
Mary Lindsay is equally remarkable, both victim and manipulator (and tormentor of her younger, less artistic, sisters Isabel and Pearl). Financially dependent and living a dull life in a country town, Mary extracted grim pleasures through manipulating allies and foes alike, circulating stories in letters, sequentially courting and repulsing friends and relatives.
The reader swerves - with Mendelssohn - in assessing Mary from page to page. Her sister Isabel bore the brunt of Mary's ambivalence of being female in a world that validated male intellect and achievement and being sister to Australia's chief public advocate of (by assumption heterosexual) sex. Mary's claims to have more affinity with men than women, contrasted with her avowal that her friend Millie Lewers had nothing "unhealthy" about her, also speak of further gender turbulence.
Mary's central frustration was her consciousness of never being a "full" woman in terms of the Lindsay mystique and yet being too intellectual for her country town peers. What did either everyday life in the Menzies era or modernist creativity offer to an unmarried elderly woman? The alacrity with which her brothers tacitly permitted doctors to proscribe morphine as a sedative to Mary, and other inconvenient female relatives, suggests an unexpected connection between medicine and "art".

This disempowering of women versus the artist-genius - identifiably flourishing as Norman (with Lionel as both wannabe and more deeply talented, and Daryl as politician/schemer) - is the story unfolded by Mendelssohn via Lindsay correspondence. If Isabel disappears as an autonomous subject, Mary and Rose achieved a fuller life as Mendelssohn allows the liars to hang themselves by their own words, yet live to tell another tale tomorrow. Mendelssohn has astutely followed contemporary intellectual interests and turned a core Australian myth into an indeterminate space of contemporaneity: gossip, intrigue and uncertain borders, tainted with the traditional hallmarks of femineity and the underhand stratagems of seduction. Mary's archetypal feminine skill as letter writer has stripped her brothers bare. The legend of the Lindsays crumbles - under Mendelssohn's admittedly privileged hands (a far more competent and less bitter Mary?) - into an exposé of the fear of female desire and the careful policing of the same by even the most libertarian males.

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