Pauline Boty by Marc Kristal
With a healthy dollop of Ali Smith
“A great many men don't understand a woman full of joy, even more don't understand paintings full of joy by a woman.”
It’s strange to begin a review of one book with a quotation from another book, in this case, Ali Smith’s Autumn, but bear with me here.
Pauline Boty was one of the founding contributors to the Pop Art movement in Britain in the Sixties. Her life and art were cruelly curtailed by her death from cancer at the age of 28. Her body of work was gathered up and stored in an outbuilding of her brother’s farm, where it was rediscovered in the late Nineties. She is now considered an important figure in the art world, hence books like Pauline Boty by Marc Kristal, which I was given to review by Netgalley.
I first discovered Boty through Ali Smith’s work. Each novel in the Seasons quartet takes a female artist and their work and uses it as a lens by which to understand the themes of the book. It is a multi-faceted novel, which looks at the impact of the Brexit vote and fears of immigration alongside the freedoms and exploration that art can bring a life. Daniel dreams in his nursing home, his life’s end weaving with visits from his young friend Elisabeth, whose work on Pauline Boty at university was inspired by Daniel’s descriptions of her paintings as she was growing up. The three figures offer us the past, the present and the future and a space in which to explore ourselves within that trinity.
Intrigued by Smith’s descriptions of Boty’s work, I found Smith being interviewed by Katy Hessel on The Great Women Artist’s podcast about the artists who shape the novels, which led me to hunt out more about all four women. Boty, by way of the briefness of her life, remains the most tantalising of the artists and to me, the most intriguing.
All of which brings me to Kristal’s book.
This is impeccably researched and big on the details of Boty’s life. The author has clearly gone to great lengths to track down anyone who knew her who was willing to be interviewed. It is detailed and thorough and has a good selection of images of her work and from her life.
The problem, for me, is one that has cropped up here and in other books about women who were ‘forgotten’ that I have read recently. There is so much we don’t know about Boty and the temptation is always to fill the gaps rather than let the silence speak for itself. Books, by their very nature, demand words to fill them, but I am left feeling increasingly unsure as to whether this is the right thing to do.
Kristal does acknowledge that the material he is working from may be compromised by time and by other people’s agendas, which makes this much easier to read than other things I’ve read recently where the author takes as gospel whatever material suits their own purpose. Even in the excerpts transcribed from magazine and television interviews, Kristal makes the point that Boty may have had her own agenda and whoever edited the finished product certainly had theirs. The biographical material is thin on the ground and all too flawed.
What I found uncomfortable here was the sense from time to time that the part was being mistaken for the whole. Boty’s body of work is as complete as it’s ever going to be, but it doesn’t mean that it was finished, or that the artist she was when she died was the artist she was always going to be. Kristal does explore this, pointing to her final work as much more polished and complete than previous paintings. She was clearly still honing her craft. Perhaps my unease was more that in some interviews with her peers, there seems to be a need to critique the work as if she had a long life behind her. That skews their perception, and ours.
What struck me throughout the book was that people found it hard to pigeonhole Boty and there was and remains an unease in the inability to consign her to this or that box. She is described as a Pop Artist, but she was well known in her lifetime as an actress, a model and radio presenter. She started her artistic life making stained glass before moving on to making objects, painting and collage. Even though she had solo shows in her lifetime, I still got the sense that there was an unhappiness with her artistic process from certain quarters. There is the implication that there were questions around her success that did not come from her. There are unspoken concerns hovering beneath the surface. Did she get exhibitions because she was so good at promoting herself and had such a high profile, rather than because her work was any good? One wonders if Boty had been a man if that idea would ever have been floated.
Because there is always the issue of Boty’s femininity throughout this book. She was a woman who openly enjoyed both her beauty and her body. She posed nude for magazines and often used the promise of a photo shoot to place her paintings in the public eye. She was vocal about her enjoyment of sex. In a world of men, Boty’s life was unimpeachably and proudly female. She celebrated her body and her sex in a way that could very easily be held against her by her critics.
She used her beauty to give herself a platform and most importantly a voice. She took the constraints of the male world in which she lived and turned them to her advantage both as an activist and on television and as a radio presenter. She took the image of the blonde, sex bomb, the Wimbledon Bardot as she was known, and turned it on its head to create a life of exploration and innovation, far removed from what she had been brought up to expect as her lot.
There are fleeting moments in the book, largely in interviews, where there is the impression that if she was going to be considered a ‘real’ artist, she should have put more effort into her art and less into everything else. That anything that wasn’t being locked in a studio for twenty hours a day, wrestling with artistic process was not good enough. I don’t think anyone was quite as bold as to say it directly, but I felt it was hinted at. Maybe it comes from the very real belief that she had such potential and the knowledge that she never had the luxury of developing it, but that’s something that only hindsight can offer.
Then of course, there is the tragedy of her death, which is a filter that permeates the entire book. This is most explicitly explored in the afterword in which the author talks about the later, equally devastating deaths of her husband and eventually her daughter. One interviewee talks about it in terms of a Greek tragedy, as if the curse of Boty’s death doomed the rest of her family. I found this the most jarring way to look at her life. Some interviewees talked about her fatalism in the face of her cancer and float the idea that she had chosen to leave her life because she was disillusioned with where she ended up. For me, the cancer as slow, painful suicide narrative is the most diminishing of all the boxes you could put her in.
At times, reading this book I was very much reminded of the life and death of Paula Yates as a parallel for what happened to Boty. Both beautiful, both able to use their beauty and sexuality to advance their careers and create a platform for their own, not inconsiderable talents. Both working across different media and operating in what was still, even in Yates’ lifetime, very much a man’s world. Like Yates, Boty’s life has been subjected to a lot of prurient interest and media furore and coloured in hindsight, by tragedies that have rippled on in the aftermath of their deaths. The word tragic is bandied around a lot with regard to them both. It is tragic, of course, but to diminish their lives and agency to a rubber necker’s delight is demeaning to them both.
There is also, for me the issue of Boty’s ‘place’ in the grand scheme of things. We are so keen to give everyone a place, to see how they fit. In Boty’s case, not just in the art canon but also in terms of her gender and feminism. In this regard, the other woman that Boty reminded me of is Sarah Woodruff, the French Lieutenant’s Woman of the novel by John Fowles. In the novel, Sarah is described as a woman born outside of her time. Sarah is a modern woman, born into a world that is not ready for her. Caught up in her love affair with Charles, Sarah’s frustration with the options open to her spill out and she proclaims: ‘I wish to be what I am,’ I feel that sentence pulsing through every thing I find out about Boty.
So many brilliant people like Boty have been erased through history for all kinds of reasons. It is wonderful that they are being rediscovered. Historians and biographers are doing sterling work in presenting them to a world that is more willing to accept them. The challenge is how to show them in a way that doesn’t muddy the water, or if it does, it acknowledges that the water is muddy.
It is impossible to write without bias and theories. I’ve offered up a few of my own here. It is possible to say ‘this is just a theory I like because it chimes with my thinking.’ I’d like to see more of that in future works about people like Boty. I’d also like to see a celebration of what we don’t know and an acknowledgement that it isn’t possible or even desirable to fill those gaps.
Writing about people who make art is doubly difficult I think, because regardless of the life, the art speaks a different language. It can be tempting to fill the gaps in a life with the noise the art makes and that’s where things get messy. Boty seemed to paint personal pictures that use parts of and comment on her life, but they may not be what they seem. Kristal uses the example of one of Boty’s Marilyn Monroe paintings, The Only Blonde In The World as an example of this. According to Kristal, the painting which is attributed to having been painted after Monroe’s death, was actually painted before it. Knowing that, we see the painting in a whole other light. Accepting that Boty mined her life for subjects to paint has to come with an understanding that one can never be the other and to read it as such does the artist a great disservice.
As Smith shows us in her kaleidoscopic novel, it depends where you are in relation to what you’re looking at as to how you read it. In life as in art. In a serious work by an art historian like Kristal it can be easy to pigeonhole Boty, when she was clearly a woman who spent her life refusing to be pigeonholed. In attempting to nail her to the page, it feels at times like watching an entomologist going after an exotic butterfly. It looks so beautiful when it flies. Less so, pinned to a board in a museum.
For me, reading Kristal alongside Ali Smith restores some of the balance. It reminds me to think of the woman in flight and the transcendence of her art. Go to Kristal for the facts. Go to Smith for the joy.