The title for this book comes from the story of Stravinsky insisting that his family eat their lunch in silence. The slightest noise could interrupt his concentration and ruin a symphony. When Drusilla Modjeska heard this story in Sydney as she was first starting work on this 'double biography' of Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, an argument broke out among friends at the table about the competing demands of life and art. Did art, if it is to be Art, have to win out over the domestic demands of life? Should Stravinksy have had his lunch on a tray?
Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith were born a year apart, in the antipodean autumns of 1893 and 1892 respectively. One left Australia on the eve of the First World War and lived the rest of her life in Europe; the other lived for decades in the same house on the outskirts of Sydney. For one Paris and famous names; for the other the quiet life of a provincial suburb. One went off to find a life of art; the art of the other grew out of the life she lived. The bohemian and the spinster.
" They are like mirror images of each other, two sides of a coin... And yet there is something in their stories that is the same; not the content but the struggle and achievement, dilemma and preoccupation, courage and hard-won wisdom. I tell their stories, similar and different both, as a koan in my own practice as a woman and a writer. I tell them to understand."
Questions of compromise lie behind all the lives in this book, including Modjeska's, but this does not make it a dry book of philosophy or polemic. On the contrary, it is a rich and engrossing book about the lives of two Australian women artists, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, whose lives and art were very different and who dealt with this problem in very different ways....
[Modjeska] is erudite and intelligent but she wears her knowledge lightly. Above all she brings her two main subjects to life and shows their importance as artists and, particularly, as women artists who succeeded in the male-dominated art world in which they lived and worked. Their stories are inspiring, fascinating and thought-provoking, and Modjeska tells them wonderfully well.
Sydney Morning Herald
This is the most beautifully written book about the processes associated with the art of painting that I have read in a long, long time. The voice is Modjeska's authentic own: consistently passionate, intelligent, reflective and wise.
Modjeska sees the bohemian in Paris and the North Shore spinster, as being 'like mirror images of each other, two sides of a coin'. And yet, she writes, 'there is something in their stories that is the same'. The attempt to tell a common story through these complete opposites is inspired.
There are many such things to ponder in this book, to be considered and discussed. And, as Modjeska concludes at the end of the section on Stella Bowen, 'if her life teaches us anything, it is that more than one thing matters, and maybe in the end it is the conversations we have - both in love and in art - that will come trailing behind us'.
This beautifully written book will be the subject of many, many conversations over lunch.
To those who have read Poppy and The Orchard it will be no surprise that Modjeska's writing is of the best. But here she has excelled herself, with meticulous research and profound reflection. By the end of the book we see how each of the artists overcame the split between life and art. The author herself, moreover, has overcome what sometimes seems to be the great divide between literature and the visual arts. We need more writing of this calibre about art; writing that moves, elevates, and takes time to ponder the essence of paintings and the connectedness of lives.