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The Du Maurier Rebecca Exhibition: “Beyond”
PZAG, Penzance (in conjunction with Penzance Bookshop)
There has been a plethora of discussion this year to commemorate the 100th Birthday of Daphne du Maurier on Sunday 13th May. There have been long articles in the Guardian and Observer pointing out her rather difficult relationships with George and Gerald, her 'amours' with both men and women, and the rediscovery of yet another short story.
The exhibition at the PZAG focuses upon the novel Rebecca and also there are references to Sally Baumann’s “Rebecca’s Tale” and, of course, to the Hitchcock film in which Laurence Olivier played the leading role of the mysterious Maxim. It was the only film for which Hitch was to get an Oscar and won an award for the Best Film of 1940. Du Maurier was inspired and moved by films and was pleased by this movie when it came out - at a time when she was living in Kent and volunteering for Defence Training. Today, some may well find the plot of this novel, generally agreed to be her best, rather overblown and dark-even Gothic. At the time it was an interesting and brave attempt to examine deep psychological themes, including guilt, envy and lust, and went some way to promote a greater appreciation of the repression of women generally, but particularly of upper class women with tense dispositions and unreliable servants.
However, there are many reasons for getting better acquainted with du Maurier. There is her accessibility and charm; she is both interesting and easy to read. So, for instance, the Cornish publishers Truran, have produced an inspiring little volume, by Ella Westland, called “Reading Daphne” for new readers and book groups. In Westland’s book, there is a full discussion of the films that she inspired, and attention is drawn to her links with Bronte and other predecessors and Cornish Romance generally. There is some treatment of her sisters’ works. In her non-fiction book “Vanishing Cornwall”, she starts to sense a deep awareness of the impact of commercialisation on a fragile environment. Her novels are imbibed with an atmosphere, which depends on her feeling for landscape. She loved walking, all over Cornwall. Perhaps, a work dismissed at the time, like “Rule Britannia” will be seen to have raised some interesting political issues. Daphne du Maurier is also valued for her biography as well as her fiction. Found in books like “The Winding Stair” about Francis Bacon; His rise and Fall- recently republished by Virago. There is a fascinating short biography of du Maurier herself, (as well as about AL Rowse-recently portrayed by Ian Richardson in his last Radio drama) in the May issue of the little known magazine Cornish Banner written by James Whetter. PZAG has stressed its own international aspect but in this latest exposition returned, as with the interesting William Blight material, to local history, to high drama with accompanying spray from the high crested Cornish seas.
As you enter this particular exhibition, you encounter the spooky dressing table of Rebecca, feeling a little like the shy narrator examining the tiny phials of the evocative Je Reviens perfume. We have just dropped into the exiled Eden of Manderley where redemption proves impossible and the gnarled and naked roots are never far away. Neither are the tempting tentacles of the vengeful and unpredictable sea. In the corner there is a faded apricot satin dress over a folded screen-what figures are lurking around and about?
Alison Blarney’s large photographs (picture left) are intriguing and haunting. She explains that she has always been captivated by the wild, the free and beautiful, indeed the adored, Rebecca depicted in this case by the enigmatic looks of Hannah Turk-Richards. In the work there is a fascination for this other woman and at times, Maxim seems a mere intermediary. Du Maurier riddles persist here and inspire this watching from a certain distance. This is emphasised by the tracery of stockingnette dresses and veils. The fashion together with large white flowers recreates the rich and at times gothic atmosphere as in the novel.
There are only twelve pictures but their impact is increased by the alternation of black and white photographs with those in voluptuous colour. In one picture Stella appears almost deathly pale, somewhat reminiscent of Joan Crawford. Du Maurier was fascinated by houses (Manderley was to provide the funds for Menabilly) and associated vegetation. Here the architecture of grand houses, including the gates of Trerife and the boathouse at Trevarno act as back drop in these portraits. The expressions vary; contemplative, reserved and at times, superior and mannered. Among these photographs there are some with compelling compositions that provoke memories and suppressed emotions. However, there are dangers with becoming too fascinated with illusions. This is a difficult milieu in which to innovate, as we have become used to nostalgic imagery from Kate Bush and Enya CD covers to the films of Ken Russell. What was the imagery of Keats; -
And now the sharp keel of his little boat
Comes up with ripple, and with easy float,
And glides into a bed of water lilies:
Broad leav’d are they and their white canopies
Are upward turn’d to catch the heavens’ dew.
is now being used to promote the sale of household goods. Nonetheless, here are some haunting photographs, searching for an ethereal femininity, worth seeing over and again and discussing with friends; du Maurier fans or not. The print quality is good and reminds us, that film photography-, as with the recent Nik Strangelove exhibition at the Vitreous Gallery in Truro- remains attractive and pleasing to the eye.
With Ben Gunn’s work (below right), in the next room the atmosphere seems to lighten as the sun-bleached driftwood distributed beneath these large canvases with pale viridian as the dominant shade. Ben was a seaman who sailed out of Wick and Lowestoft, Aberdeen and Grimsby from the 1960s and had to negotiate the Cod War off the freezing waters of Iceland. He spent 14 years inside the Artic Circle. In this literary context his presence reminds one a little of his fellow countryman W.S.Graham, the poet that wrote the esteemed “Nightfishing”. His painting has been fostered by the Guild of Newlyn Fishermen and fostered by the encouragement of that jovial gentleman, Jeremy Le Grice. Here his works, mostly seascapes, vary from the exuberant to distant views over rolling moorland. There is a level of irony in the titles of these works and “Bitch of a Night” returns us again to darker themes.
In this exhibition Vaughan and Marilyn have shown us once again that they are not just impresarios but through imagination have encouraged here creative links with du Maurier’s writing. The exhibition also reminds us that Daphne’s memory also belongs here in West Cornwall, where she visited the Vyvyan family at Trelowarren, and that she had visited with her mother, Muriel, Mullion Cove and Kennack Sands at the Lizard before she arrived in Fowey.