Women in the Field, One and Two by Thomasin Sleigh (Lawrence & Gibson, 2018), 284 pp., $25
Midway through Women in the Field, One and Two, art writer and curator Ruth Bishops begins to assemble an exhibit based on the two titular paintings by her friend and frequent antagonist, Russian émigrée artist Irina Durova. Searching through the artist’s archive of paintings, she asks for work from 1912, the same year that the Women in the Field works were created, explaining to Irina that these will ‘give people a sense of how your work developed, what you were painting at the same time … explain Women in the Field’. ‘[T]hey don’t explain each other, they just happened,’ Irina retorts, ‘some at the same time, some later. Everything can’t be reduced to a straight line. Exhibitions like that are a lie.’
The two Women in the Field paintings sit at the centre of Thomasin Sleigh’s second novel. ‘They were two parts of a whole,’ Ruth thinks when she first views them in Irina’s collection, ‘but also had their own life, their own compositional logic, so that they could be viewed on their own.’ They depict Russian women harvesting apples, a traditional image, but Ruth remarks that ‘the composition is not traditional, in that, we do not see the women face on. Some women are cut off by the edge of the paintings and others recede into the background.’ The background of the paintings belong to the modernist schools – ‘little overlapping planes of colour, like a fan, half folded out’, which Ruth recognises as Cubist and Futurist influences – but they also employ traditional Russian painting techniques in depicting the women that are their subjects.
Ruth is a junior curator at the (fictional) Fisher Gallery in post-World War Two London, and as the novel opens, has also been offered an additional role as an acquisitions advisor to New Zealand’s fledgling (and very much non-fictional) National Art Gallery – an offer made mostly as part of an ongoing skirmish between the former and current directors of the Fisher. Ruth, the only woman on the staff at the Fisher and frequently subject to the power plays between her colleagues, agrees to take up the role. Then she meets Irina and becomes captivated by the artist and her paintings, making Irina’s Women her first recommendation for the New Zealand gallery to purchase.
Duality sits at the heart of the novel – the duality of the two Women in the Field paintings, with their contrast of modern and traditional styles; the duality of Ruth and Irina, the curator and the artist; and the dual cities of post-war London and Wellington, between which the novel is split. As with the intermingled styles of the paintings, Ruth and Irina are frequently contrasted with one another: Irina is brash where Ruth is hesitant, volatile where Ruth is calm, a member of a fallen aristocracy where Ruth is from a working-class family. Irina is also a self-promoter, whose stories of her life and success prior to her arrival in England – including her participation in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition where, she explains, she was included late and is accordingly missing from the official record – are both outlandish and have more than a hint of the fabulist. The quieter Ruth keeps her own counsel, at work and at home.
Ruth’s inwardness and the rigid structure of her life is at the fore in the London-based first half of the novel. Ruth deals with her belittling male colleagues as best she can, her main reprieve being visits to her father and sister, and her inner dialogue with the reader remains fixed in the present. Her personal history, in particular the impact of the war, is so rarely alluded to that when she allows herself some personal disclosure in conversation with her neighbour, in one of the most effective and arresting passages of the book, it comes as a jolt to the reader who has followed her closely partitioned life thus far.
When Ruth and Irina travel to Wellington in the second half of the novel, things begin to open up – and complicate themselves, and sometimes fall apart. The unpredictable Irina takes more control of the story, and Ruth’s uncertainty about her friend’s motives makes for a constantly shifting narrative, including one dramatic revelation towards the end of the novel. This final revelation does tip slightly towards melodrama, the only moment where the flow of the book felt anything other than natural, and gives the conclusion of the novel a slightly rough edge in comparison to the fluidity of the rest of the narrative.
New Zealand itself is also presented as uncertain, a still-developing nation in comparison to end-of-empire Europe – although thankfully Tamati, one of the National Gallery’s own curators, is on hand to remind Ruth that Aotearoa is not quite as fledgling a nation as it is often portrayed to her. Just as New Zealand is shown to be more open to possibilities for Ruth and Irina, however, the cultural closed-mindedness of the colonial society is also drawn out in the second half of the novel: where Ruth was part of the ever-evolving modern art scene in London, in New Zealand she is forced to counter the conservative reaction to Irina’s paintings. ‘The opinions of the populace have been ignored by those experts who profess to understand these “abstract” paintings, which, in their unrefined shapes, simply function as socialist propaganda’, one outraged citizen argues, to which Ruth responds that ‘[o]ur visual lives are filled with strange compositions, unusual viewpoints, and fleeting glimpses. Abstraction in painting is simply an acknowledgment that the world is not whole, knowable, or fully understood, and there is a beauty in this partial way of seeing.’
With its historical setting and linear narrative, Women in the Field could possibly be the most traditional novel published to date by the often free-wheeling Lawrence & Gibson Press collective. But, just as Irina tells Ruth, to reduce the novel to a straight line is to simplify and misunderstand it. Sleigh – and Ruth, and Irina – know that traditionalism is not necessarily antithetical to radicalism, and the two coexist and interact throughout the book just as they do in Irina’s paintings, complementing and pushing against the other. Questions of how art is created, ordered and understood rub up against the outwardly conventional narrative of voyage and self-discovery, one colouring the other; where uncertainty and the partialness of vision underlie all of Ruth and Irina’s actions. It is a feminist novel, an art critique and a page-turner, using all of the conventional and experimental tools at the author’s disposal to create an intimate and captivating novel.
FRANCIS COOKE is a Wellington writer and the co-editor (with Louise Wallace) of Starling, an online journal publishing emerging New Zealand writers under 25 years old.