Solace from a familiar portrait
The Australian, July 11, 2009
The Lost Mother: A Story of Art and Love
By Anne Summers
Melbourne University Press, 354pp, $34.99
WHEN her mother died in 2005, Anne Summers was given a painting from her estate.
It had hung on a wall in her parents’ house for as long as she could remember. It was a portrait of her mother, painted when she was 10, her hair braided into two long plaits, dressed in a red beret, blue jumper and brown pleated skirt. Her startling blue eyes gaze calmly at the viewer.
Summers was, of course, familiar with the work, as was the whole family: it had hung prominently in her parents’ living room, a silent witness to the family’s comings and goings, sorrows and celebrations.
At some stage before her mother’s death, Summers recalls that she asked her mother to write an account of how the painting had come about, who the artist was and how the work had come into the family’s possession.
She knew, therefore, that the artist was a Constance Stokes, that the work had been in the collection of a Mrs Mortill and that her grandmother had eventually bought it as a gift for her daughter, the portrait’s subject.
Now here it was in Summers’s house in Sydney. Summers would stand before it, entranced. The more she looked at it, the more enthralled she became. There was a luminance about it, a tenderness, yet also something undefined beneath its surface, undefined, a kind of power exuding from it.
And the more she looked, the more the questions came. How did this come about? Why was it that particular young girl? Summers returned to the few notes her mother had made for her about the work’s provenance and a discovery propelled her into action.
She found in the notes something she had overlooked or forgotten: her mother had recorded that two portraits were painted; the second had her draped in a long shawl like aMadonna.
Where was the second painting? Who was Stokes? What was it that she saw in this particular subject? And who was Mrs Mortill, the art collector who bought the work? Did she also buy the second painting?
The questions began to exert an urgent pull, stirring something deep within Summers that demanded some kind of resolution. She decided to find some answers. She put to one side her thraldom, picked up the thread and moved with determination into the labyrinth. The result is this fascinating, beautifully realised book.
Using her prodigious skills as a journalist, aresearcher and historian, with her quick intelligence alert to possibilities, and paying minute attention to detail and nuance, Summers began to reconstruct not just the lives of the people who populate this intriguing story but the lifeofthe painting, its antecedents and its consequences.
Her journey through the labyrinth, following her “vagrant strands” of thread, as she calls them, takes her into sometimes extraordinary territory and at other times into the ordinary, the everyday circumstances of its characters.
Her tale moves across continents and into small back gardens, into intelligence back rooms and the blood-drenched fields of the Somme, into the past and back into the present, down roads that seem to lead nowhere and around corners that reveal new perspectives. Its characters are remarkable for their variety and idiosyncrasies: even Stalin, a figure far removed from her mother’s world, has his place, playing his sulphurous part with finesse.
In her prologue, Summers confesses that she did not have much knowledge of art and artists. This book proves her wrong.
In its construction, its mosaic-like structures, its criss-crossing paths of cause and effect, what The Lost Mother ultimately reveals, thanks to Summers’s skill, is that a painting — or a book, or any work of art — is not just an accumulation or manipulation of paints or pencil or words on a page. It is an object capable of absorbing or reflecting all kinds of meanings that we, the viewers, put into it. It is not a static object; it shimmers with a life we perceive, or think we perceive, within it.
Summers ends her work of art by saying she looks at her painting every day: “The painting was, I realised now, not just about my mother.”
It was also about Summers. Through the painting, its presence, the steady gaze that locks her into its heart, she has come at last to mourn her mother with understanding and tenderness. For she comes to know with certainty that a work of art is also an object capable of offering solace, the solace her mother’s portrait continues to give her.
Angela Bennie is a Sydney-based journalist and critic.
(c) The Australian