by Kathleen Notman
Cressida was my model for ten years. She had the attributes required of an artist’s model - commitment and patience. A good model develops a special kind of bond with an artist hence the reason why in the past many great painters used their favourite models time and again.
Cressida wasn’t beautiful but she had an unusual face and could always give me something, a look I was searching for. I was making a collection of portraits of 20th century women. She is in all the photographs, intended to show the many emotional aspects of women. I admit that on one or two occasions I was a little envious of her - like the time when a middle aged man stood beside me at an exhibition of my work, nudged me in the ribs and looking at one of the portraits said, “Who’s the gorgeous model?”
We became very close. In times of stress I would disappear into my studio and at my calling, she would be there to start work. We’d shoot some film with no preconceived idea for a portrait. Sometimes we’d get nothing, other times she would manifest a characteristic in a woman that would be familiar to me. I might have seen it in myself or in someone else.
I’d become interested in metaphysics and ontology - finding truth and the meaning of life through art. I used the medium of photography, combined with painting, to convey this philosophy. Cressida was used to show reality and I painted the images of emotion.
In the beginning, I admit I disliked her. She was narcissistic and her only motive in being a model seemed to be the desire to show the world she could look pretty! An unhappy adolescence had left her insecure with a striving to be admired. I used this quality in her for the portrait, “Sex Symbol on TV Screen”.
But as the collection grew, she changed. She began to forget herself and to think more of the characters she was portraying, their sufferings and discontents as well as their joys and ecstasies.
We did thirty-five portraits together. Some are staggeringly beautiful others disturbingly gruesome. Most are about women I’ve known or heard about and a few are from my own experiences.
“The despair of the girl he used to call, baby“ is about me. When I was fifteen years of age I met an older man and we had a passionate love affair. After two beautiful years, he left me for a sophisticated, mature woman - I lost the man who used to call me, baby. For a few years I carried pain and bitterness over my loss but later when I met someone else I pushed it to the back of my mind and seldom thought about it. But when Cressida portrayed me sympathetically as a girl in despair, I saw the beauty that lay behind the portrait - beauty that was two years of loving and being loved by a man. And now, more than fifty years later, my memories of the affair are sweet. One would almost say creating the portrait was cathartic.
We were never at a loss for a subject and after ten years of studying the lives and characteristics of many women, the collection was complete. In many cases, to go further would have been repetitious covering similar grounds. I no longer had any need for my perfect model.
After two exhibitions and several airings on television, the most rewarding aspect for me was that many women found comfort in the portraits. It helped them to understand themselves, their fears of being rejected, their sexuality, their grief on seeing the first signs that youth is about to take flight…………. Most women share many of the emotions portrayed in this collection. It has been described as a brave work with no holes barred. It includes the woman disturbed by her sexual fantasies - the woman who lives half her life in her own comforting fantasy world - the woman who kills - the woman who envies a shop dummy, a lifeless form, a flawless beauty free of mental and physical pain.
Most new works of art receive some adverse criticism and when the collection was first shown a few asked why I photographed only one woman. I didn’t explain that she is a generalisation who I chose to represent 20th century woman. Neither did I feel is necessary to explain that I’d made an honest study of 20th century woman so that future generations would know her, how she’d changed during the century, how she’d gained independence and many other things. One person suggested that I was in love with Cressida. By the time the collection was complete, I certainly loved her
Through art, this collection of portraits, I faced the truth about myself and gained a better understanding of others and of life.
There is a Cressida within every woman but not many women would give her a name and use her for professional reasons. When I began the collection, I despised myself. By the time it was finished, I loved myself.
Cressida is my inner self, my conscience, with whom I first seriously confronted on starting my collection of 20th century women when I was narcissistic, insecure with a striving to be admired.
The collection was broken up years ago with most portraits in private collections. All that exists of it is a video recording and photographs of many of the originals.
B i o g r a p h i c a l s k e t c h :
K a t h l e e n N o t m a n w a s b o r n i n E n g l a n d i n 1 9 2 9 . S h e l e f t s c h o o l a t t h e a g e o f s i x t e e n , w o r k e d a s a h o t e l r e c e p t i o n i s t u n t i l h e r m a r r i a g e t o a R o y a l A i r F o r c e n a v i g a t o r . S h e h a s t h r e e c h i l d r e n . S h e l i v e d i n S i n g a p o r e f o r n e a r l y t h r e e y e a r s a n d d u r i n g t h e s i x t i e s , w i t h h e r f a m i l y , s h e e m i g r a t e d t o N e w Z e a l a n d . S h e e d u c a t e d h e r s e l f t h r o u g h c o r r e s p o n d e n c e s c h o o l s a n d a f t e r h a v i n g n u m e r o u s o c c u p a t i o n s i n c l u d i n g d e s i g n i n g c l o t h e s ( s h e d e s i g n e d a n d m a d e a l l t h e h a t s a n d d r e s s e s f o r h e r c o l l e c t i o n o f 2 0 t h c e n t u r y w o m e n ) s h e b e c a m e a f r e e l a n c e j o u r n a l i s t a n d a r t i s t .
E m a i l : f o r t y - t h r e e @ x t r a . c o . n z