Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two Books by Norman Lindsay

by Robert Boyd

Earlier this summer, I wrote about Age of Consent, the late 60s movie based on the 1938 novel  by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay (1879-1969) was an Australian painter, print-maker, illustrator, and novelist. Seeing Age of Consent made me very curious about this figure, a man both geographically and stylistically outside the mainstream of art history. People like this are often fascinating figures, and Lindsay more than most. Here's what his art looks like:

Norman Lindsay, Crete, 1940

He was also a skilled watercolorist, as you can see here.

Norman Lindsay, Visitors from the Moon, watercolor

(I wish this image were better reproduced. I suspect his work looks a lot more vivid in person.) So you get the idea. Norman Lindsay, a Victorian lad, loved nothing more than to paint and draw and sculpt naked ladies. His work was a scandal in early 20th century Australia (and the USA), and Lindsay himself lived a bohemian life worthy of French artists--lots of sex, lots of living in sin--before marrying and moving to a country estate (more on this later).

So to follow up on this odd character, I got copies of the novel Age of Consent and his memoir, My Mask.

Age of Consent follows a bachelor artist named Bradly Mudgett into a remote coastal area away from people where he can paint. In the movie, Mudgett is a very successful artist coming off a huge gallery show in New York--here, he lives a fairly marginal existence on the collectors in Sydney, which was something of a backwater in the English-speaking world back then. Mudgett is a misanthrope and shy around the ladies (he sees a prostitute occasionally when he has some cash).

Aside from the period, Mudgett's level of success, and the location (in the novel, the action is near Sydney but still remote; in the movie, they have to go out to The Great Barrier Reef to get a suitably remote location), the movie follows pretty close to the novel. One difference is that when Mudgett starts painting Cora and posting the canvases off to his dealer, they start selling. That's actually an important plot point, because Mudgett, though he is living on next to nothing, is nonetheless running out of money. And now that he has discovered Cora--his model and his muse--he is reluctant to leave. The money from the gallery enables him to stay. And just as in the movie, Cora ends up staying with Mudgett.

This book is quite amusing, and really, it's like the ultimate middle-aged male artist's fantasy--finding a sexy young model who you end up sleeping with. I wonder if it caused any scandal when it was published. There are no sex scenes or much in the way of "vulgarity," but sex is assumed and nudity is constant. It is easy to see how the painter who so loved the female form--and not in some abstract way, but specifically as an erotic object--would write a book like this.

Norman Lindsay, Spring's Innocence

When Lindsay wrote his memoir, My Mask,  in 1957, he wrote it assuming the reader would have read some of his books, which I understand were pretty popular in their time. He is constantly telling the reader that this or that person from his life is the model for this or that character. If, like me, you've only read one book, this becomes tedious. His roundabout way of telling his life story is also kind of a drag. I would really like to read a biography of Lindsay written by someone else.

He tells the story of his birth and continues up to when he and his second wife settled down at Faulconbridge. His father was a doctor who loved life, and his mother was a highly religious woman who (according to Lindsay) suppressed this life-loving side in all of them. As he and his siblings left home, they all became artists and pleasure-seeking bohemians. Over and over, the ideal of hedonism is expressed in Lindsay's book. He goes over to London in 1910 with his friend Bill Dyson and his sister Ruby, whom Dyson had married. He later brings his model/girlfriend Rose over, and sets up house with her. Bill and Ruby, one-time bohemians, disapprove of this unmarried shacking-up! Lindsay is outraged at their hypocrisy and their new-found Victorian morality, and the friendship ends. He and Rose return to Australia later and he tragically never sees Ruby again (she died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919). Lindsay married Rose in 1920, but the implication is that he may have dallied with the occasional model subsequently.

So he seems like a very appealing character. But there are aspects of him that rankle. He comes off in one point as a white supremacist (positing that the white race began in Atlantis, and the most beautiful women were those who were most directly descended from the Atlanteans). Fortunately, this is not a theme he repeats. He also seems extremely closed-minded about modern art (forgivable given when and where he was born and given his own preferences as an artist) and about France in general (despite loving the novels of Balzac).

These two books have given me a powerful urge to see his paintings. Maybe a trip to Australia is called for!


  1. The legends don't say. Some, like Milton, see Pan's death as a metaphor for the end of Paganism and the birth of Christianity. But some assert that Pan never died. (See the D.H. Lawrence essay following the Oscar Wilde poem here: