As any regular reader here will know I don't read much new fiction at all, less that could come under the' those are more things I'm interested in.
Alicia Foster has a history of art PhD, published works on Gwen John and catalogued theTate's collection of work by women artists 'Warpaint' is an offshoot of some of that research - an intriguing mix of actual and imagined events. 'Warpaint' deals specifically with 4 female artists - the real Dame Laura Knight and 3 fictionalised characters - Faith Farr, Cecily Browne, and Vivienne Thayer (based reasonably closely on the actual artists Grace Golden, Evelyn Dunbar, and Isabel Delmar). It takes place over the winter of 1942/43 and opens with a courier delivering something highly secret to a discreet gothic villa somewhere in the vicinity of Bletchley park before heading off to the London office of Sir Kenneth Clark in his capacity as head of the War Artists Advisory Committee...
A repellent young man (Aubrey Smith) has been given the unwelcome job of trying to get some work out of Dame Laura, Faith, and Cecily none of whom seem to be as grateful or fawning as he would like. For Dame Laura this is the chance to paint something important and she'll be damned if she lets the ministries desire for wholesome and uplifting pictures get in the way of that. Faith is embroiled in her own drama and traumatised by what she's seen and experienced - she wants to record the world she sees and isn't very interested in producing propaganda. Cecily, from the WAAC point of view is the least troublesome - she's happy to produce uplifting pieces showing women doing their best in difficult circumstances - even if the women she meets aren't behaving quite as she's like them too. Vivienne works for her husband at 'Black' - based in that discreet villa. It's her job to turn out postcard images designed to play on the paranoia of enemy servicemen.
Foster uses these different women 'to explore the efforts of those in power to create and control representation, in both it's official and wholesome, and it's covert and more sinister, aspects' she also has a bit of fun with a spy story and a love affair. I think the book really comes alive when talking about the art - it's a nice touch that Foster describes paintings by the real life counterparts of her fictional creations; I had a very nice time tracking down images, the visual element added something special. Beyond the fun of it Foster uses these images really effectively to make her point, she also picks up on imagery from films - the stiff upper lip, brave little woman stuff that we all know and which has become our memory of that collective past - and keeps prodding at it, pointing out how unrealistic those representations of women are.
Initially I felt that the misogyny was overdone but actually it isn't. Looking at old posters is a stark reminder of how things were. I really liked this book, it's not all perfect, but it's got me thoroughly interested in it's issues and sent me off looking for all sorts of things and any book that does that is a gem.