Rodda on Bellette

Local artist and writer Selwyn Rodda makes an illuminating reading of Jean Bellette's dark, even murky, painting Acheron. Raising more questions than answers, Rodda activates a new reading of this mysterious work, revealing a myriad of stylistic, historical and social issues for us to consider.

Jean Bellette (1901–1991), Acheron, n.d., oil on paper on hardboard. Castlemaine Art Museum. Gift of the Estate of Beverley Brown. Image: Ian Hill.

Selwyn Rodda on Jean Bellette

Are we looking at Acheron the river as backdrop to a group of mysterious figures in the foreground, or Acheron the river god before he was turned into a river by Zeus, displeased with Acheron siding with the Titans (as their water bearer to refresh them in battle) as they fought against the Olympiads?

Is the river in the background then, a proleptic Styx, Acheron later becoming a tributary of it? And who are the three women flanking him, the two on the viewer’s right with an air and accompanying gestures of propriety towards him, the one on the left seemingly a servant delivering an unidentifiable dish? Perhaps the one in the red tunic is Orphne, a nymph of the underworld who, with Acheron, was the parent of Ascalaphus, orchardist of Hades. Or perhaps not.

Questions but no answers: indeed, a drawing in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, whose similarity to Acheron suggests it may be a preparatory sketch or early compositional study for it, is simply titled Three Figures and dated ‘circa 1944’, making it likely this painting is contemporaneous with it and also, perhaps, that the painting may have been named after it was completed.

As with all the mythological scenes I’ve seen by Tasmanian born Jean Bellette, it is hard to glean a distinct narrative here. Perhaps she chose mythological scenes, or at least settings, not so much out of a particular affinity with them, but rather to hang a picture on, a loose prompt for her own antipodean take on antiquity and its relation to her cultural milieu and the state-of-Western art in general. Historically, a painting like this strikes me as a belated antipodean response (Australian modernism was always playing a fascinating game of catch-up with European and then American developments) to Novecento Italiano, a neoclassical Italian art movement founded in 1922 in part as a response to the rise of Mussolini’s fascism and its “call to order” and its echoes throughout Europe, including Picasso’s neoclassical period.

It would be an outrage and a far cry to impute any such ideological underpinnings to Bellette’s vision (or neoclassicism as a whole) but it seems to me that her work does partake of a conflicted traditionalist’s response to the perceived ‘anarchy’ of modernism. One of her teachers was the great British Jewish artist, Mark Gertler, who practised his own peculiar brand of modern classicism or realism, and Thea Proctor, whose decorative, charming and debonair prints were an acceptable hybrid of tradition and modernist ‘simplicity’ shorn of all shock and provocation.

The twist is that neoclassicism, broadly defined, was integral to modernism and fully as idiosyncratic and inventive in its varied manifestations as any of the vanguard art movements. Indeed, the paintings of leading Novecento Italiano artists, particularly its leading light, Mario Sironi (1885–1961), whose powerful, gritty, stark, highly abstracted, almost-industrial take on classicism, acknowledge and monumentalise essential aspects of modernisation, such as urbanisation, mechanisation, militarism, alienation as well as the harsh reality of Italian life under fascism. Sironi is a clear precursor of a painting like this, though the influence may have been indirect.

Bellette’s neoclassicism is likewise decidedly modernist in its lack of pictorial resolution, its abstraction of the human figure, its technical ‘roughness’ and, in this instance, an appropriately rather Stygian (Sironiesque?) ‘murkiness’, as though time and exile from the centres of European culture and the catastrophe of the Second World War, made an impossibility of painting a normatively serene and optimistic classical homage (such as the Victorian’s idealised classical revisionism and the otherworldly equanimity of Symbolist Puvis de Chavannes). So, a painting of exile and deep existential unease, of a ruined, smoke-choked, begrimed classicism?

Bellette, with her artist and art critic husband, Paul Haefliger (1914–1982), lived in Mallorca, Spain, for much of her life, so she was intimately acquainted with exile: from Australia and the art scene in which she had made a name (despite atrocious male chauvinism, another kind of exile and censure) and the Western classical tradition that she was so clearly drawn to but unable, via her historical moment and her refusal to be an academic classicist (her husband was a critical champion of modernism in Australia) closed off to the formal freedom and expressive dynamism of modernist painting. And then there’s the long shadow of the war. This strange and compelling little painting does look like a statement of loss of innocence and/or mourning, the woman in red touching Acheron, if indeed it is he, with a tender or consolatory gesture. And witness the way Acheron’s face is enshadowed, his shoulders and head turned to the women behind him – to hear tidings of Zeus’s unbearable punishment of deliquescence? But their attention is elsewhere, somewhere ‘offstage’, adding a touch more intrigue – are they harkening to Zeus’s pronouncement, inaudible to its intended victim?

The empty pitcher turned over – we remember Acheron was water-bearer for the Titans – here subtly suggestive of the aftermath of conflict and the calamity of defeat and perhaps also the impending essence issuing from a bodily vessel in the decreed transformation. While Acheron’s perizoma (loincloth), in an inspired imaginative and formal touch, looks very much like waves in gentle motion – his loins, the ‘engine’ of generation, perhaps also driving the wellspring of his transformation (a patriarchal god’s magical emasculation of a traitor)?

Is this then a small farewell gathering as his ‘humanity’ slips away? Or are the women messengers sent by Zeus, the servant brining a last meal? Finally, Acheron becoming, then being, the ‘river of woe’ or ‘grief’, one of the five rivers of the underworld, I return to this as an oblique reflection on the Second World War and Bellette’s fears for and perhaps of, Western civilization itself, and I think this painting is a fine example of how small, seemingly modest, paintings can contain immense pressures, complexities, anxieties and ambiguities.

Selwyn Rodda

Selwyn Rodda is an artist (painter and works on paper), occasional writer on art and other matters, and painter and digital designer of book covers (poetry and fiction). He studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and paints at home when he’s not working as a gardener. Recently, he collaborated with Western Australian poet, novelist and critic, John Kinsella. He lives and works on unceded Dja Dja Wurrung Country.

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