If Anne Summers’ objective in writing 'The Lost Mother' was to stimulate interest in Australian women artists, with me, she has succeeded. I have books by Janine Burke and Drusilla Modjeska (and Summers’ own autobiography) on my library request list.
The Lost Mother, A Story of Art and Love
If Anne Summers’ objective in writing The Lost Mother was to stimulate interest in Australian women artists, with me, she has succeeded. I have books by Janine Burke and Drusilla Modjeska (and Summers’ own autobiography) on my library request list. The Lost Mother is a mixture of art history, a tale of a lost painting, and a brief exploration of the way in which women disappear from history, and a bit of family saga too. The Lost Mother is a deliberately ambiguous title: Summers examins her own relationship with her mother. As good social commentators do, Summers asks many more questions than she answers, and she leaves space for her readers to ask their own questions, to do their own wondering.
In 1933 Constance Parkin painted two paintings of the ten year old Tuni Hogan, Anne Summers’ mother. One painting is of the young girl holding an illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland, the other was a painting with a religious undertone. The Hogan family didn’t see these paintings. The search for these paintings is the mystery part of the story. At the time Parkin was a leading modernist painter from Melbourne, she had won a coveted travelling scholarship in 1929, and had spent time at the Royal Academy in London, and in Paris. She exhibited with the James Flett group of ‘embryos’ and had her own exhibition. She married, became Constance Stokes, had three children, and although she kept painting and selling her paintings, she faded from view. Her paintings were in major collections, so two of her paintings should not have been able to disappear. Her name, either as Parkin, or her married name, Stokes should be as well known as her male contemporaries, but it is not. She was living in Toorak, being as she wrote; ‘half mother, half painter.’ Summers conjectures that if Stokes had been more raffish and less conventional, if she had been part of the Heide or Monsalvat schools, she may not have disappeared. The ‘loss’ of the work of female artists is part of the art history story. As interesting as these two threads of the narrative are, for me, the most interesting part of the story is the relationship between Summers and her mother.
In the sixties, an eighteen year old Summers came from Adelaide to Melbourne because she could not live with her father (or, he could not cope with her). Her mother arranged for her to live at Tay Creggan, then a Catholic Girls Hostel, once the home of Lydia Mortill. Mortill, whose strange story is another thread in the art history, was a collector who had several Stokes pieces in her collection, including one of the missing paintings of Summers’ mother with a large illustrated Alice in Wonderland book. This painting known as Alice, was still in the house. At the time Summers was an angry, rebellious adolescent who did not appreciate having her mother watching her from the wall. She did not stay long at the hostel, but moved on to a life of writing, political involvement and business, of which she felt that her mother never fully approved or supported. Do any of us really know our parents? Shortly before she died, Tuni Cooper, as she became, wrote; ‘What really disturbs me Anne is that I feel that you don’t really know me…’
Summers describes the Melbourne in which artists worked between the wars. This was a world which today, would be the world of the ‘A list’ celebrities and gossip columns. She goes on to show the tensions between the rebellious youngsters of the sixties and their parents, people whose formative influences included depression and world wide war. This was the period in which the sexual and feminist revolution was starting. People are tired of being told that things were different then, so Summers’ illustrates the way in which the world was changing. Maybe the time of the sixties feminists is now as lost to the past, as is the almost unimaginable period of the suffragists of a century ago.
Perhaps the poet Philip Larkin, was right when he wrote:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do
they fill you with faults they had
and add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
by fools in old-style hats and coats.
The Lost Mother, A Story of Art and Love
Melbourne University Press
Published: July 2009