I have always preferred the folk art that appears on cans of chocolates, tins of sardines and umbrellas – images of saints, cats, teapots, harlequins, swirling patterns of color – to more contemporary works. heady, politically “urgent” and essentially irreproducible. There are two paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where I come from, that I remember most clearly as crumpled postcards stuck to the wall of my teenage bedroom. I loved them very much. I remember the two paintings hanging in the same salon-style room in the gallery, their frames nestled among portraits of people staring at you like commuters on a crowded tram. Both works portray women that, in different ways, I wanted to be. And both were painted at the beginning of the 20th century: an explosive and bloody time, when the world was about to change; a time that appealed to a teenager like me, who wanted to be a writer.
I’m half sick of shadows, said the lady of Shalott (1915) by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse was inspired by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Based on the Arthurian character of Elaine d’Astolat – who was cursed to spend her days locked in a tower weaving scenes of the outside world seen only in the reflection of a mirror – the Lady of Shalott sits in a room Tastefully decorated but claustrophobic that offers window views of a medieval idyll of a riverside castle. She looks sideways at a couple standing by the window who cannot see her, their arms raised behind their heads in a moment of boredom and frustration. His world is isolated. It is a strangely outdated painting that seems to belong more to the 1880s than to the First World War period: Waterhouse was known for his nostalgic depictions rejecting industrialization and technology. For me – a dreamy teenager who felt her life had yet to begin, who had had some of her first internet crushes, who didn’t know whether she wanted to actively live life or just observe it – I’m half sick of shadows offered easy metaphors for distance and desire. I always slept with my teddy bear, Bombozine, like Sebastian in Evelyn Waugh Brideshead revisited (1945). After bouts of drinking or drugs, I would retreat to my room for days with children’s books. In I’m half sick of shadows, the Lady of Shalott has not yet chosen how or if she wants to live; she’s only half sick after all. I thought it was beautiful.
In an old Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott (1888), Elaine sails down a river, draped in her own creations, little tapestries of the world she had never seen before. A teenage friend of mine had a copy of this painting in her bedroom. The work’s undertones of desperate beauty were rooted in our neo-romantic teenage years in the early 2000s. We grew up with movies like Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998), actresses like Kate Winslet and Eva Green, neither of whom would have looked out of place in a Waterhouse painting.
The second of my favorite works at the Art Gallery of Toronto is Augustus John’s Marchesa Casati (1919), which shows a woman with short, fiery red hair and thick, smudged makeup. Because of this painting, I hennaed my hair and mascara around my eyes at 17, intrigued by adulthood. Casati wears a white dress with red tinted pleats. It looks loose and frayed, like a Waterhouse painting that’s been smudged and cracked. She’s the sleazy woman you might meet in TS Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ (1911-17): “And you see the corner of his eye / Twists like a bent pin.” She looks like a dirty swan or a rag doll. You can tell from her half-mad direct gaze that she is sexually experienced. Maybe I was drawn to her because she had something of an “indie sleaze” look, which was becoming fashionable when I became a young adult: Casati was like a proto-Amy Winehouse or Lady Gaga . Her experienced demeanor told me I needed barrels and barrels of memories, my own discerning eyes and a wrinkled dress if I was going to write fiction, otherwise I’d be forced to weave the same sweet little pictures than the Lady of Shalott.
I didn’t know what a “marquise” was – that it was a rank evoking her inherited wealth, that Luisa Castati was a wealthy socialite, represented by several artists. I assumed from her dress that she was a seedy artist’s model who did sex work; that she smelled of pastis and cigarettes and that she had torn stockings and that she lived in Paris in a studio where she ate pastries from the night before and where men liked her funny face. While Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott was inspired by a poem, this Casati painting had a poem written about it by Jack Kerouac. In ‘The 74th Chorus’ (from Mexico Blues1959), Kerouac describes having a postcard of the painting pinned to his wall in ‘Frisco’.
Casati looked like a character from a Jean Rhys novel or the rag dolls painted by Egon Schiele. I would soon become obsessed with Schiele Woman sitting with bent knee (1917) – based on the artist’s wife, Edith Harms, the outline of her vaginal folds visible behind bloomers and stockings. I discovered Schiele in Vienna, which I visited in the summer after high school with my best friend. A retrospective of his art has been advertised as free for the naked. None of us went naked, and we didn’t see any naked people in the museum. When I started college, however, I often lied and said that I visited naked, that the rooms were full of men with no clothes on. Like Schiele’s women, Casati had a strong face that I could identify with. Unlike the porcelain-looking Anglo-Saxon girls of Waterhouse – whom I could never look like, even if I desperately wanted to – Casati was someone I could more easily imitate. In a vogue September 1970 article, Philippe Julian compares it to Nosferatus (1922) and a ‘sinister Pierrot’.
Casati’s sexual allure, as I imagined it, propelled me into the bliss and humiliations of the experience. I drank bottles of vermouth all by myself; kissed an old man with hands like lobster claws, a trumpeter, a painter who made enormous portraits of gorillas; stole books and smoked Romeo y Julieta cigarettes. If I had known that Casati was an heiress, that her money had helped her integrate into society, that she had bought her muse status, when I grew up partly on allowances and I got into debt during my college years as I tried to live out a fantasy of being interesting pie, maybe I would have been wiser – but also a lot less confident.
I put it all away in notebooks as story material and used fiction as justification for the most painful and gruesome escapades or escape attempts, but I always had the Lady of Shalott at the bottom of me: a desire to withdraw into the shadows, into a world of books, imagination and movies, to live in her comfortable prison without her horrible fate of going to a world that didn’t want her. In Holman Hunt’s version of the Lady of Shalott (1888-1905), she looks content and wild, entangled in her visions instead of looking out of her cell. She has a samovar and has taken off her slippers.
In the last section of Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott” (1832), Lancelot, whose own beauty fatally compelled Elaine to leave her tower, sees her corpse and remarks in passing that she has a “beautiful face” and asks “God in his mercy lend him grace,” which I have always read as sadly dismissive. Nothing is said about his tapestries.
This article first appeared in curly number 230 with the title “Ladies, Tarts, Rag Dolls & Swans”.
Main image: John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm. Courtesy: ©Tate, London