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Issue 230

Art’s Rag-Doll Women

Camilla Grudova revisits the mythical and real women of painting who influenced her fiction – and adulthood

BY Camilla Grudova in Features , Opinion | 31 OCT 22

I have always preferred the popular art that appears on chocolate boxes, sardine tins and umbrellas – pictures of saints, cats, teapots, harlequins, swirling patterns of colour – over more heady, politically ‘urgent’ and essentially irreproducible contemporary work. There are two paintings in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where I am from, which I remember most clearly as crumpled postcards taped to the apartment wall of my teenage bedroom. I loved them immensely. I recall both paintings hanging in the same salon-style room of the gallery, their frames nestled among portraits of people staring back at you like commuters on an overcrowded tram. Both works depict women who, in different ways, I wanted to be. And both were painted in the early 20th century: an explosive and bloody era, when the world was on the cusp of change; a time that attracted a teenage girl like me, who wanted to be a writer.

John William Waterhouse, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott, 1915, oil on canvas, 103.5 x 73.7 cm. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Ontario

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott (1915) by the pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse was inspired by the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Based on the Arthurian character of Elaine of 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 tastefully decorated yet claustrophobic room that affords a view through the window to a medieval idyll of a castle beside a river. She side-eyes a couple standing near the window that can’t see her, her arms raised behind her head in a moment of boredom and frustration. Her world is isolated. It is a strangely outdated painting that seems to belong more to the 1880s than to the period of World War I: Waterhouse was known for his nostalgic depictions that refused industrialization and technology. For me – a dreamy teen who felt her life hadn’t started yet, who’d had some of her first crushes on the internet, who didn’t know if she wanted to actively live life or just observe it – I Am Half-Sick of Shadows offered easy metaphors for distance and longing. I still slept with my teddy bear, Bombozine, like Sebastian in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). After bouts of drinking or drugs, I would retreat to my room for days with children’s books. In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the Lady of Shalott hasn’t made her choice of how, or whether, to live yet; she is only half-sick after all. I thought it was beautiful.

In an earlier Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott (1888), Elaine sails down a river, draped in her own creations, little tapestries of the world she had yet to see until now. One of my teenage friends had a print of that painting in her bedroom. The work’s shades of forlorn beauty were embedded in our neo-romantic adolescence during the early 2000s. We grew up with films 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 favourite works at the Art Gallery of Toronto is Augustus John’s Marchesa Casati (1919), which shows a woman with short, fiery red hair and heavy, smeared makeup. Because of this painting, I hennaed my hair and smudged mascara around my eyes at 17, intrigued by adulthood. Casati wears a white frock with red-tinted folds. She looks loose and frayed, like a Waterhouse painting that has been smeared and cracked. She is the sordid woman you might encounter in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ (1911–17): ‘And you see the corner of her eye / Twists like a crooked pin.’ She looks like a dirty swan or a rag doll. You can tell from her half-mad, direct stare that she is sexually experienced. Perhaps I was attracted to her because she had something of an ‘indie sleaze’ look, which was coming into fashion as I became a young adult: Casati was like a proto-Amy Winehouse or Lady Gaga. That experienced demeanour of hers told me I needed casks and casks of memories, my own knowing eyes and rumpled dress if I wanted to write fiction, or else I would be stuck weaving the same sweet, small pictures as the Lady of Shalott.

Augustus Edwin John, The Marchesa Casati, 1919, oil on canvas, 38 x 27 in. Courtesy: Art Gallery of Ontario

I did not know what a ‘Marchesa’ was – that it was a rank connoting her inherited wealth, that Luisa Castati was a rich socialite, depicted by multiple artists. I assumed, from her dress, that she was a down-and-out artist’s model who dabbled in sex work; that she smelled of pastis and cigarettes and had ripped stockings and lived in Paris in a studio flat where she ate day-old pastries and men loved her odd face. While Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott was inspired by a poem, this painting of Casati had a poem written about it by Jack Kerouac. In ‘The 74th Chorus’ (from Mexico City Blues, 1959), Kerouac describes having a postcard of the painting pinned to his wall in ‘Frisco’.

Casati resembled a character from a Jean Rhys novel or the rag-doll women painted by Egon Schiele. I would soon become obsessed with Schiele’s Seated Woman 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 the summer after high school with my best friend. A retrospective of his art was advertised as free for naked people. Neither of us went naked, nor did we see any naked people in the museum. When I started university, however, I often lied and said I had visited in the nude, that the rooms were full of men without any clothes on. Like Schiele’s women, Casati possessed a strong face that I could relate to. Unlike Waterhouse’s porcelain-looking, Anglo-Saxon girls – who I could never resemble, although I desperately wanted to – Casati was someone I could more easily emulate. In a Vogue article from September 1970, Philippe Julian compares her to Nosferatu (1922) and a ‘sinister Pierrot’.

The sexual allure of Casati, as I imagined her, propelled me into the happiness and humiliations of experience. I drank bottles of vermouth by myself; kissed an old man with lobster-claw hands, a trumpet player, a painter who did enormous portraits of gorillas; stole books and smoked Romeo y Julieta cigarettes. If I had known Casati was an heiress, that her money had helped push her into society, that she bought her status as a muse, while I partially grew up on benefits and indebted myself in my college years as I tried to live out a fantasy of being an interesting tart, perhaps I would have been wiser – but also considerably less confident.

Egon Schiele, Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Narodni Galerie, Prague

I filed everything away in notebooks as story material and used fiction as the justification for the most painful and horrible escapades or attempts at escapades, but I always had the Lady of Shalott in the back of my mind: a desire to retreat into the shadows, into a world of books, imagination and movies, to live in her comfortable prison without her horrible fate of going out into a world that didn’t want her. In Holman Hunt’s version of the Lady of Shalott (1888–1905), she looks content and wild, tangled up in her visions instead of gazing 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 compelled Elaine fatefully to leave her tower, sees her corpse and remarks in passing that she has a ‘lovely face’ and asks ‘God in his mercy lend her grace’, which I have always read as sadly dismissive. Nothing is said about her tapestries.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 230 with the headline ‘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

Camilla Grudova is the author of The Doll’s Alphabet (2017) and Children of Paradise (2022).