Sunday, June 30, 2019

The First Mrs de Winter

The First Mrs de Winter, acrylic on linen, 40.5 x 30.5 cm. (Progress view)

Almost two decades ago, Katherine McDonald wrote a catalogue essay about my first ‘rear view portraits', perceptively titled Woman’s Other Visage (2000). Indeed, hair can be as much an identifier of an individual as her or his facial features. In films that feature non-fictional characters, considerable care is usually taken to replicate their hair colour and hairstyles. The actor or actress may bear scant resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but accurately reproduced coiffures can fool us into believing they are dead ringers. In a curious twist, my imagination has tricked me into believing that one of my 'non-portraits' closely resembles someone who doesn’t even exist.

Recently a fellow artist likened the subject of the above work to Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s eponymous novel, first published in 1938. It’s decades since I read the book, which I discovered on my parents’ bookshelf as a teenager. I’m a long-time admirer of Hitchcock - his films have had a considerable influence on my own work - and I’ve seen Rebecca many times over the years. As soon as the “resemblance” to its title character was brought to my attention, I thought: ‘He’s right!’

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Rebecca is dead before it even begins, although her shadowy presence pervades every scene and also drives the plot. Although I last saw the film some years ago, I could still see Rebecca in my mind’s eye. I was positive that she appears in at least one flashback, particularly towards the end, when her true nature and the facts about her demise are revealed.

From left: Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers and Joan Fontaine as the second
Mrs. de Winter with the portrait of Rebecca. (Rebecca, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

I watched a DVD of Rebecca the other day, eager to see how accurately I’d nailed its title character. In fact, aside from a briefly glimpsed portrait, all references to Rebecca in the film are purely anecdotal. Yet for me, she is far more compelling than the hero and heroine, played admirably though they are by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine (particularly the latter) and wields far more power than either, even in death. Rebecca’s spirit lives on primarily through her creepy, obsessively devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, superbly embodied by distinguished Australian-born actress Dame Judith Anderson, who steals every scene she’s in.

It’s a tribute to Hitchcock that this film is so dominated by a figure who never actually makes an appearance, I was not only convinced I’d seen her in it, but subconsciously channelled her in my painting.