Thursday, 14 October 2021

TV review: Bronwyn Oliver: The Shadows Within, ABC (2021)

There are many things that connect me with Bronwyn Oliver and so I was deeply unhappy with the way that this program privileged her suicide, as though that one event determined the meaning of her life – though she was spiky and could be difficult to deal with. Having watched the show I still wonder what kind of person she was and I’m also led to wonder – because the show focuses on the woman more than on the art – what each of her striking works means.

I suspect that the truth is far more interesting and also more complex and wonderful than ‘The Shadows Within’ leads us to believe. The show is nevertheless rewarding for someone, like me, who is passionate about the visual arts. I never had the opportunity to study art as a young person – unlike Oliver (who was, in this respect, far more fortunate  than I was) – but I did spend time during one summer at the Alexander Mackie on South Dowling Street at the same time she was a student there. My short stay was not part of a full course of study, alas, but I enjoyed the experience and still have fond memories of painting classes, which included some with models that we used to sketch from life.

For art is about life, and perhaps because Oliver was so good at what she did we grieve her passing more strongly. Her ties to Cranbrook School – I was at Cranbrook from kindergarten through to the Higher School Certificate – forming a kind of link to life itself, the children giving her reasons to hold onto it and when that link was severed she drifted off into her own world, never to be seen again. As though she’d passed into a fourth dimension, such as you see when looking at one of her intricate works in copper, a place full of bright ideas that she twisted out of the fecund depths of her being like a Medieval mage. 

It was Cranbrook that put art and French in the timetable at the same time during the week, necessitating a decision on my part – or, rather, on my father’s part; for when I called him one day from the kitchen phone upstairs to ask him if I could drop French he resolutely said “No”, thus cementing in place a journey with words that I still trace with my own being, having been deprived of the opportunity to be an artist – which is what I’d wanted – by a man who was used to being obeyed.

Oliver on the other hand spent almost 50 years in that world. In fact it was a man associated with Roslyn Oxley, who I’d met somewhere in Sydney one day and who I brought to my house to see my paintings, who said, “It’s early days”, dismissing my oeuvre with a select few of his own words. I find I’m essentially envious of Oliver and thus find it puzzling why this show is so negative. Surely a woman who got to spend almost five decades doing what she loved should be celebrated as a chosen spirit, and not some poor unfortunate who, living with a tendency to obsession and her own thoughts (hardly a trial, believe me), in the end was overcome by sorrow because her lifestyle militated against health and wellbeing. She couldn’t be told what to do, and this was her strength. This was the reason why she was a great artist. Let’s applaud loudly on account of all that she achieved in her life. I won’t grieve anymore except for my own losses.

No comments: