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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Bec Kavanagh

Girl in a Pink Dress by Kylie Needham review – a tale of two artists

Composite of Kylie Needham and her book, Girl in the Pink Dress. 2023
Kylie Needham’s debut novel Girl in a Pink Dress is visual and poetic in its prose. Composite: Daniel Boud/Hamish Hamilton

The title of Kylie Needham’s debut novel refers to a painting of “a young woman in a pink dress against a cavernous background of bruised blues and bulky blacks”. It’s an obvious but nonetheless apt metaphor in a book about women in art, about women in the world.

“She looks mournful,” writes Needham; the darkness is a “fathomless shape”. Her prose is visual and poetic – unsurprising perhaps, given Needham’s background. An award-winning screenwriter in her own right, Needham has first-hand experience of the world of fine art through her husband, the renowned Australian artist Ben Quilty. At first it seems as though this might be just another book about art and desire – but, like the surprisingly seductive landscapes painted by Frances, the heart of the book and the titular girl, there’s more depth to this story than first meets the eye.

When Frances receives an invitation to a retrospective by the acclaimed painter Clem Hughes, she reflects on her past as his lover and the influence their relationship had on both their lives and their art. As a student, Frances was seduced by Clem’s passion for his art and by the thrill of capturing his gaze. But then Frances weighs her desire against her ambition and wonders whether the two can be truly fulfilled at once.

Needham and her contemporaries are writing more and more into a spectrum of frustration and fury that ambitious female artists might feel towards their entitled male counterparts (and sometimes lovers). Madelaine Lucas’s novel Thirst for Salt speaks to astonishingly similar themes of older men, privilege, art, family and ambition. Which is not to say that either book is derivative but that there is a growing body of work asking these questions: can women have a life that is domestic and creative? And is it love that gets in the way of art, or is it children, or husbands, or desire?

In this novel, Frances takes a little while to come into her fury, although when she does it is deeply satisfying. At first Clem’s seduction of her is confident and careless – when she first goes to his house to sit for him, Frances knows from the outset that the day will end in sex. Needham doesn’t write Clem as a sleaze or even a playboy; their relationship is valid and reciprocal. And yet there’s frustrating familiarity in Clem’s entitlement and privilege: he’s the son of a two-time Archibald prize-winning painter who has been raised with all the benefits of wealth and professional connections. Clem’s art is dark and abstract, divisive but critically acclaimed: lots of floating limbs and thick, heavy paint. His success has come easily, to the point where some critics accuse him of being given an easy ride because of his father’s reputation.

Frances, on the other hand, paints landscapes that have “accumulated a modest but dedicated following among the mature, well-off women of Sydney’s east: lips and nails painted coral red, diamond rings like boulders slipping sideways on arthritic fingers, voices like gravel that are accustomed to being heard.” Her work is quieter than Clem’s, although not lacking in passion.

But unlike Clem, Frances’s art is tempered by economic concerns and ambition, a source of tension between the two, and a provocation for readers. Like her art, Frances’s narrative voice is frank and unadorned, an antidote to the kind of highbrow vernacular often associated with the art world. She is uncomfortable in this world from the beginning, far more at home in her decrepit cottage in Bald Hill, with her ex-con neighbour Rina. She refuses to pander to the expectations of the art world and of the men around her and, while this prevents her potentially from receiving the kind of critical acclaim heaped on Clem, it doesn’t stop her from finding her own kind of success.

In the prologue, Frances stands awkwardly in the gallery for Clem’s exhibition. She watches two men looking at the painting of the girl in the pink dress, and then looking at her. “They’re saying the woman in the painting is me,” she thinks. But by the end of this gently compelling novel, that fact is far less certain – is Frances the woman in the pink dress? Or has the artist perhaps captured something else entirely, an unintended revelation that might surprise even him?

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