And then, at odds with the snappy lines of Modernism, there is a romanticism clearly expressed in her photographs of the Australian landscape. Reviewing her in 1985 Max Dupain wrote: ‘‘The therapeutic calm of this exhibition is its major attraction. It’s like walking through the bush early in the morning and suddenly being surprised by a tranquil lake.’’
I had never heard of Cotton but Dupain’s images are fixtures in my Australian head. Dupain was Cotton’s first husband. They were both from established Sydney families and shared an interest in art, music and photography. Particularly photography. In their adolescence they were close friends and later set up a Sydney studio together. Although unassuming, Cotton defined herself as Dupain’s assistant. Lee Miller, not unassuming, did the same with Man Ray. In 1939 Cotton and Dupain married, but two years on she tired of his fond eye for their models and left him. Not long after, they both met their life partners.
Dupain went on to become celebrated but Olive Cotton, who had exhibited overseas and was admired by critics, disappeared from view. Only the dedicated work of feminist art historians re-framed Cotton as being as important as Dupain.
Ennis’ stated puzzle in this biography is to try to understand why a woman of such talent would just let it go. Was it simply the times, postwar, pre-second wave feminism? Ennis cites women who were Cotton’s contemporaries who knew they were artists and dedicated their lives to that fact but Cotton just went to the country to live, had a family and withdrew completely from the dynamic bohemian world of Sydney.
What happened? Ross McInerney happened. Of all Cotton’s skilful photographs the one she took soon after meeting him in 1942 is the most revealing. In the summer army uniform, McInerney is seated by a window, messing with something in his hands. He is looking back into the camera, back at Olive. His sexual attractiveness is devastating. It is perhaps the most disclosing portrait this private woman ever made.
McInerney – confident, practical, charming, a great talker – came from generations of farmers near Cowra. In the Depression his family lost their property but he was determined to stay in the area. He was, according to his children, an early conservationist. After the war he and Cotton lived on a small property in a tent, then a two-roomed house and then, in 1973 a larger but very modest house. She taught mathematics at the local high school, he farmed, sold honey, bred dogs and fixed things. The garden was filled with the old cars McInerney was fixing and Cotton’s bedroom looked out into these. Photography happened when it could.
Helen Ennis, in her fastidious and fair detailing, set out to solve a puzzle. Cotton, temperamentally reticent and trained to be a ‘‘nice’’ girl, rarely spoke about herself or her feelings so Ennis has relied on those other sources available to the biographer, including walking in the footsteps of the subject.
She wants to tell the now (over) familiar story about the talented artist and her defeat because of the notorious ‘‘littleness’’ of a female life.
But another, unspoken, story emerges; how a disciplined, rational, well-bred young woman fell in love in exactly the way Jane Eyre and Cathy Linton fell in love. Olive Cotton revered science and reason but the composer for her was Chopin. Ross McInerney, not an easy man, was Olive Cotton’s fate, her Rochester, Heathcliff, Darcy. She chose not to dedicate her life to her art but she had an immense life.
With intense love, children, the freedom and intimacy of the countryside and nature she discovered capabilities that would not have flourished in easier circumstances. There are many ways to live your one life and many possibilities for art. Olive Cotton made deliberate choices. Her choices don’t sit comfortably with contemporary women but retrospective theorisation is a shonky business. Better a hard life than a dull one.