WHEN artist Rosemary Valadon decided to paint noted Australian women as classical archetypes, she chose Germaine Greer as Artemis, Blanche d’Alpuget as Athena and artist Annette Bezor as Aphrodite, goddess of love.Valadon had been taken with a Bezor painting entitled So Glad You Came: “It was orgasmic: a woman’s face with the mouth half open in bliss, and she was surrounded by all this patterning. It was a woman’s experience of desire and sexuality.”
And, having met Bezor, Valadon knew her appearance also lent itself to the theme: “Her skin was soft and full, she had blonde hair, and there was a lightness to her, but she was a strong-looking woman as well … She’s very spirited and self-assured.”
Today, Bezor is vaguely embarrassed about having agreed to pose. “I think my ego got the better of me, and my narcissism. I wanted to see what someone else would do with me.
“We had this South Australian `Living Artist’ breakfast a couple of years ago, and they had all these people voting for things, categories, and I actually won the sexiest artist. And of course I was mortified. Being painted as Aphrodite is a bit like that; it’s double-edged: `By the way, she makes great paintings, doesn’t she?’
“Looking back, I should have gone up to the microphone at that breakfast and said, `Would everyone who voted for me please leave their telephone number at the door?”‘ She laughs, her good humor restored.
The problematic aspects of female beauty and desire and the gaze of others have long been themes in Bezor’s painting and in her life. Her large, lush, sensual canvasses are often filled with female forms erotically draped across different backgrounds: landscapes, flowers, brilliantly patterned fabrics or swirls of cloud.
Enigmatic female faces gaze half-submerged through textured layers of haze; Intercourse I and Intercourse II are merely a smudge of an inward-looking eye and a mouth.
In Wrestling with the Cherubim, a voluptuously naked Bezor wrestles with other versions of herself in a tangle of limbs while attacked by a flock of chubby cherubim, the struggle set against the deep ochre of an Australian desert at dusk.
Bezor has always been unashamedly unfashionable: a figurative artist in a time when abstraction is the go; a purveyor of color and beauty in an era when grittiness, if not ugliness, is thought to have more power.
Melbourne gallery owner Robert Lindsay, who will exhibit Bezor’s next show early next year, says: “She would be one of the first female artists that focused on the feminine rather than on being a feminist. She’s less concerned with the politics and status of women than she is with society’s enduring mystique of female beauty … Hers is not a butch gaze; it’s a beguiling gaze.”
Richard Grayson is a fellow artist, curator and writer, and a former director of Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation. He is author of a newly published monograph on Bezor’s work (the lavishly illustrated A Passionate Gaze). “I think she’s one of the pre-eminent figurative painters,” he says. “She’s made a very large contribution to Australian art, and she’s not hit a plateau; she’s still evolving.”
He sees Bezor as a “desert island painter”: “She’d carry on painting even if stuck on a desert island with no audience. She’s impelled by something within herself.”
The girl who left school at 14 to work in a hairdressing salon has come a long way. Even then, however, Bezor was struggling with the dark side of desirability. She left school early because boys gave her a hard time about her pretty face and well-developed body.
The hairdressing job offered no relief from unwanted attentions: “We had a male manager and he’d pat my bum as he’d go past, or pinch my waist, and say, `You’ve got a bit of puppy fat’. They would cut my hair and say, `You’ve got to wear makeup because you look too young’.
“I was constantly being manipulated. So I became anorexic for four years. Then I managed a salon when I was 19. I hated it. I had a nervous breakdown.” She lost her virginity, found herself pregnant, miscarried, then got more hateful work selling sewing machines door-to-door. The first of her two short-lived marriages, at 21, was followed by two confused years of “goofing off”, living on the dole in a shared house and experimenting with drugs.
“I applied for art school because that’s what people around me were doing,” says Bezor. But she floundered so badly for her first couple of years that one lecturer told her she shouldn’t be there. Her mutinousness kicked in and she was determined to prove him wrong.
She says her refusal to be cowed has stood her in good stead in the years since: “… if you’re going to get crushed easily then you can’t be an artist.”
Her creativity might never have been unleashed had it not been for a trauma that left her a wounded Aphrodite. In a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, she says, “I was raped in fourth year – and quite brutally, the man was sent to jail for five years … But I couldn’t work at art school in my final year because I couldn’t relate to people.
“The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s what caused the breakthrough. I stayed in the house where I was raped; I was raped in my bedroom. I took my easels and paints home and I painted (in that room) the whole of my fourth year. There was something about being alone and not having people watch me and say I wasn’t any good; I painted some amazing figures. I won a prize that year.
“Being left alone had other negative aspects in terms of my emotional wellbeing, but in terms of my creativity it was what I needed.”
She can talk about the rape coolly but her voice wavers when she recalls her most vivid memory of that solitary time: an injured bird.
“It’s one of those things that haunts me forever. I tried to save it and I couldn’t, so then I tried to chloroform it. I put it in a box and surrounded it with pillows and put cotton wool in there and thought, `Now it will be peaceful’. Eight hours later I took the pillows from around this box and it was still alive and looking at me, so I took it outside and let it go. It would have died, or a cat would have got it or something.”
She takes a deep, steadying breath.”I didn’t know what to do. I’d become a child again, in some way.”
Bezor must have regained her confidence by 1981 when she painted one of her most loved works, The snake is dead. A buxom, dark-haired woman lolls naked at a modern-day bush picnic, full of cheerful insouciance. Around her are eucalypts; above her a bird carries a dead snake. This is a triumphant Australian Eve, saucily unashamed.
Bezor says, “I was surrounded by the most amazing women at that time, and they were doing all these classes to rid themselves of any guilt about their bodies … They used to go along and take all their clothes off and tell each other how wonderful they were, basically.
“I got to see some things that most people don’t see as long as they live. People made love in front of me; I was invited along to watch various couplings, which I did with great gusto … because I am a voyeur. (They invited me) to prove to themselves that they were these wonderfully free and open people, and … they did have a sexual, sensual freedom that I don’t think a lot of women feel these days.”
Today Bezor is working on two series of paintings. In one she Asianises the features of faces from classic paintings: “It talks about the accident of birth, the superficiality of the surface, and how we regard Asians.” In the other she paints the faces of young women in soft porn magazines.
While she has spent most of her life wrestling with the superficiality of beauty, ageing has increased the preoccupation. “I realise as I get older that you do have to have a different kind of power … If your power has resided in your attractiveness, you’re going to be in a very lost space. My work is a huge thing for me because a lot of respect is accorded to me. I don’t get asked, `Why haven’t you had children? Why aren’t you in a relationship?’ People just look at what you do and how hard you work at it …”
Next year Bezor is off to Los Angeles; soon she will return to her beloved Paris. She used to spend half her time there but decided recently that superannuation was a priority: “I have to stop throwing money into the Seine.” Aphrodite, it seems, has developed some of Athena’s hard-headedness. “I don’t want to be old and poor. Bugger that.”
Annette Bezor: A Passionate Gaze, by Richard Grayson, Wakefield Press, $35.
Annette Bezor, artist
Educated: Degree in Fine Art at the South Australian School of Art, 1974-77; residency at the Power Studio, Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris, 1996.
Career: 19 solo exhibitions in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne; numerous group exhibitions; awarded Australia Council Fellowship in 1990 and represented at the ARCO International Art Fair in Madrid in 1996 and 1998; represented in the collections of all major Australian state galleries; painted the official portrait of former Premier Joan Kirner.
Lives: Adelaide and Paris
First published in The Age.