PATRICK WHITE ENDS LITERARY CAREER WITH FICTION ABOUT A PAINTER
THERE IS NO NOBEL Prize for painting. So the closest brush with this greatness has been the 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was given to Australian author Patrick White, who’s last and longest novel is about a painter.
White, a kind of Faulkner of Australia, won the prize for producing an “epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.” That string of novels ends in The Vivisector (1970), the story of Australian modernist painter Hurttle Duffield.
Duffield is not the kind of Dickensian character everyone knows about. But Down Under, and in literary circles, he evokes a favorite image of the modern artist: tortured—and torturing—having lived in a century of Depression, war, personal debauchery, and the art market. The renowned Australian artist Sydney Nolan—perhaps one model for White’s mosaic story—stood in for the ailing Mr. White at the Noble Prize awards, reading White’s brief comments.
Understanding The Vivisector, however, may be aided by knowing that White was also an acquaintance of the British artist Francis Bacon. As a painter of humanoid horror, Bacon was no wallflower himself: randy, fast-living, and as he said, saddled with “a weakness for alcohol and young boys.”
In any case, Duffield could be anyone between Nolan and Bacon, and others included.
The title, Vivisector, sets the macabre tone. Duffield grows up in Depression-era Australia, where cattle and slaughter underwrite the economy. In “a dirty deal,” his impoverished parents sell him to a wealthy family that wants a brother for their hunchbacked daughter. His new mother, avid for an animal humane society, is galvanized further on a family trip to London. They see a simulated vivisected dog—meaning the dog is cut open, revealing its green and purplish innards, for scientific research. “The dog’s exposed teeth were gnashing in a permanent and most realistic agony.” Sounds like a Bacon painting.
After this, Duffield conceives of “God the Vivisector,” thinking that such a being gave man both cruelty and brilliance. Duffield doesn’t believe in supreme beings, but he wants to think big about a cruel world that is dotted with occasional brilliance, perhaps, in the work of an artist. His own lifelong struggle is to capture Light itself—one painting is called Marriage of Light—in a single, end-all, transcendent painting.
Just the opposite, though, Duffield’s sees mostly darkness. His Latin tutor kills himself; young Hurttle “paints it on the wall.” He goes to the war front. On return he lives with a Sydney prostitute, Nance. For his home and studio he builds a “shack on the edge of the gorge.” After a night of drunken argument, Nance falls down the cliff. Accident, suicide, murder?
By now, Duffield has a postwar art dealer, Caldicott, a homosexual attracted to the younger artist. His dealer dies after a “long illness.” Duffield’s torturous paintings—rocks, animal forms, scenes with blood—first sell to a few rich ladies in Sydney. Then they’re scooped up in London and New York (and eventually the Tate and Museum of Modern Art).
A childhood girlfriend named Boo appears. Now she is Mrs. Davenport (or Mrs. Lopez), a wealthy art collector. She introduces Duffield to an even wealthier Greek shipping couple, and the missus—Hero Pavloussi—seduces Duffield amidst his frightening artworks. She takes him to a Greek island in pursuit of a monastic wise man (who is not there).
Later, Hero attempts suicide and finally dies of cancer. Back in Australia, Duffield becomes enamored of a young girl, Kathy Volkov, who is going on to her own fame as a concert pianist. Hurttle has seduced the girl, but world ambition calls, and she leaves him behind. On her European tour, she writes to thank him for teaching her—with his “delicious kisses and all the other lovely play”—about how to be an artist.
The great Retrospective of Duffield is now at hand. Except that Hurttle has a stroke. He is crippled in body and mind. His plan to complete a series of “God paintings”—fulfilling his early notations about “God the Vivisector”—may be delayed. In the end, he is still searching for the ultimate Light painting. His mind—in the last chapters—is filled with a confusion of words (that is, the text is like impressionistic poetry, not making any sense except in the haunting, hopeless mood White tries to create).
Some commentators have said The Vivisector is about such ideals as truth, love, and the struggling artist. Maybe so. Everyone is a candidate for struggle, although the artist-as-struggler is a convenient literary motif. The truth-love dichotomy is more interesting. Duffield says that although his paintings “deliver truth,” he’s “failed so far in love.” The truth of his ghastly paintings, in other words, gets in the way of normal relationships. Paintings aren’t always vehicles of truth, of course. They can simply be an artist’s confusion, unhappiness, and psychosis in paint.
With Patrick White the novelist, we’re talking about great and prolific literary fiction. He knows that fiction works best when it pushes the human dilemma to extremes. Such is the character of Hurttle Duffield, a vivisector of the human condition. Most painters don’t have to endure such a tortured life. Instead, they can read about it in a 617-page novel, and that is just fine.