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Meg Stewart talks about Autobiography of My Mother

Meg Stewart talks about writing biographies...

Meg Stewart tried not to demystify artists when she wrote about them, because she thought they were special and gifted, but she tried to capture the person, and the ordinary things about them, too. “And having grown up with Margaret Coen, my mother, being an artist, I think that’s a great advantage it gave me in that my parents were doing incredibly artistic things all the time, but they were still getting up in the morning and having breakfast like everybody else – at least making the beds: that’s about all the housework my mother did.

“And the same with Margaret Olley. While she is truly an extraordinary human being, at the same time when you talk to her you can’t sit down and actually worship her while you’re doing the book. I tried to really not do that, not think about how famous she was, with the Margaret Olley book, and just try and capture the person, and the little everyday details about them, as well as, of course, particularly in the Margaret Olley case, the broader picture.”

Meg Stewart’s biographies are good at placing artists in the context of what was going on around them in society and the art scene. Margaret Olley was a colleague of Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend, among other great Australian artists. “You see, with Margaret Olley, she was the last link to all that particular part of Australian art, a really important part of Australian art history. There’s no-one [else] really, except for Jeffrey Smart. And he wasn’t so intimately involved with the Sydney scene of the 1940s. She was the last link.

“And my mother, too, was an extraordinary link with people — even more of a link than I knew to begin with — with people like Norman Lindsay.”

Meg Stewart remembered Norman Lindsay, too. “I lived the first five years of my life in Norman Lindsay’s studio. Two rooms with a shared bathroom in Circular Quay…
“I first knew him when I was a small child, from the moment I was born. He painted me when I was about four, or drew me. He was in his 70s then, well, 70s through to his 90s, really…the last 20 years of his life, that I knew him. He seemed like a grown up, like an adult – as I say in this book, he was like my grandfather, really.

“There was never any suspicion that he had been my mother’s lover. I mean, that never entered my head then. And I think the thing that people don’t always realize about Norman, they sometimes think that the man must have been like his paintings. But in fact he wasn’t. He may have had some of those sexy sort of qualities when he was younger but certainly when I knew him…There was nothing sleazy about him is what I’m trying to say. He never made any sort of inappropriate or sexual moves around me, or my mother, when I knew him, for that matter.”

I asked Meg Stewart if she had any questions that she would like to ask anyone from Autobiography of My Mother. “I am sad that my mother died without me being able to talk to her about her relationship, further, with Norman,” Ms Stewart said.

“I mean, I pressed her when I was first writing the book; she never gave any indication to me that they were more intimate than she suggested, and yet clearly they were, really. When I wrote the first book, my father was alive. I don’t think you would have got any more out of her while he was alive.

“I was moving on with my life . It never occurred to me to sit down every three days and say ‘Well, were you really in love with Norman, Mum?’ It just didn’t occur to me. Then at the very end she reached a stage of
mental deterioration where it would have been impossible, anyway. I mean, now I would like to have a conversation with her about that. I would like to know, because then I would know for sure, and you could just know the details. There’s nothing much else I would like to ask, but that’s obviously the burning question.”

As far as Meg Stewart’s plans went, she said she had acquired a lot of knowledge about the 1930s-50s art scene in Australia, and it attracted her as an era to write about.

“I’ve also got a couple of fiction ideas that are sitting there waiting to have some more work done on them. The appeal of fiction is that you get to explore your imagination. You don’t have to worry about whether it’s true or not because the truth is what you invent.”

For reading, Meg Stewart recommended The Diaries of Donald Friend. Donald Friend (1915-89) was another important Australian artist, who lived and painted in many countries including Nigeria and Bali. He has been described as a pagan in search of Eden. His diaries include accounts of his friendships with many other great Australian artists, like Russell Drysdale and Margaret Olley. “If you want to know anything about anyone you can look up The Diaries of Donald Friend. I think they’re the most wonderful resource.”

Meg Stewart also liked Sorry, by Gail Jones.