Frances, the central protagonist of Girl in a Pink Dress, is a talented landscape painter. Her works are both provocative and evocative, filled with ‘intensity and grace’. In the novel, Frances inhabits two timelines. Weaving between past and present, she speaks to us about her relationship with Clem, a famous painter she meets at art school, and with whom she develops an intense relationship. Soon, cracks tighten across the skin of their desire for one another: artistic tensions, creative rivalries and gendered hostilities.
In her debut novel, Kylie Needham sets forth to explore the idea of ‘women artists mythologised as muses’, and asks what it means to hold the space of both painter and artistic subject within a relationship.
Frances is young, solitary and awkward; Clem is older, with the whiff of the Byronic about him. He teaches art classes dressed in black jeans and a leather jacket, and is featured in magazine photo shoots ‘sitting on a horse, wild-haired and shirtless,’ with the ‘air of Brontë’s Heathcliff’. Clem has established links to the art world through his parents, but this gift is razor-edged; he is dogged with the constant concern that his name, rather than his work, is what carries his creative work into the galleries of Sydney.
In his art, Clem sees women as disjoined, ‘carcass-like’ objects – both beautiful and grotesque. Art mirrors life; while Clem desires Frances for her intelligence, beauty and talent, he also struggles with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy.
Under Clem’s gaze, Frances begins to understand the disorientating space she inhabits – simultaneously looking at the world as an artist in her own right, and looking back with the gaze of the othered muse. ‘I began to see my body the way he saw it,’ Frances tells us. ‘A thing of supple movement and fluid lines; of verticals, horizontals, diagonals; of rising and falling forms – as a thing, I began to feel, of a sort of beauty.’ Yet Clem still manages to turn Frances into a collection of wrists, breasts and scattered limbs in some of his works – one of the only ways, seemingly, he can relate to women within his art.
Through a careful awareness of Frances’ status as both painter and muse, Needham captures the othering experience of being a female artist. ‘It felt curious to be both painter and sitter, artist and subject, observer and object,’ observes Frances. ‘I wasn’t sure I liked it, having no distance between myself and the work; being so aware of myself, while at the same time trying not to be aware of myself at all’. Frances’ real love is for landscape painting – the rhythmic practice of looking, not at people, but at hills, trees, skies, rivers and suburbs. It draws her out of her body – and out of rigid expectations placed upon her, both as a woman and as an artist.
Girl in a Pink Dress has a filmic quality; the imagery pressed between its pages is potent and, in some ways, strongly cinematic. Each section of the novel is epitaphed with the details of a sketch or painting, each of which subtly evokes the evolving relationship between Frances and Clem.
Needham has an exquisite eye for detail; the lyricism of her prose flavours Girl in a Pink Dress with earthy sensuality. Small moments – like the cold of oncoming winter being described as ‘an overeager newborn, all shivery and translucent-skinned, with no fat on the bone yet to keep itself warm’ – endow the novel with a haunting beauty.
Girl in a Pink Dress is a gorgeous debut novel. Needham delicately captures the aesthetics and agonies of the relationship between Frances and Clem. At the same time, she asks what it means for women to exist as creatives in their own right.
Needham does not offer us an answer to this question. Instead, she gifts us with an eloquent vision of a female artist. Frances does not buckle under the strain of societal expectation placed upon her; rather, she shapes her view of the world through the uncompromising power of her art.
Girl in a Pink Dress, Kylie Needham
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Publication Date: 12 April 2023