This post has been published to mark International Women’s Day (8 March) and to introduce Lisa Rüll, PhD. A while ago, in Nottingham, Lisa gave a brilliant introduction to the documentary film Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. We spoke some while after the show. This is an abbreviated transcription of a longer conversation (the recording itself can be be listened to below). I’ve made many changes here and there for clarity.
Lisa, what first drew you to undertaking a PhD about Peggy Guggenheim?
I was loaned a copy of the 1960 version of Peggy Guggenheim’s autobiography, which was revised from the earlier 1946 version. And I just thought: ‘This is great! She’s completely crazy and very gossipy.’ All the names are there … So that became a starting point of a long, long hobby-horse from 1994 onwards … I did some work on her when I did my Masters … And my tutor on the course asked, ‘What do you want to do for the dissertation?’ And I replied, ‘I think I’m too fascinated with Peggy to do her justice in an MA dissertation. I think I’d like to do my PhD on her.’ It was a long route but I still remain absolutely fascinated.
Judging by what you’ve just said and what you told us at the screening, part of the problem with studying her is her own pronouncements about herself, which seem mutually contradictory and full of myth and confusion and debate – and her activities. Can you arrive at any firm conclusions about her personality and achievements?
I think my instinct was what an odd person she is! And what helped my thoughts was the fact that as part of the MA we did look at the problems of biography and autobiography, particularly around women involved in the visual arts world, where I think there are particular problems and tropes as to how women are meant to be, how they’re meant to be behaving, how they’re meant to write about themselves, how they’re meant to be taken seriously or not. And that tends to shape attitudes, as well as self-representation. So in some respects it’s a real issue.
One of the core problems around Peggy is that she’s not a producer – she doesn’t make a product. She has the galleries and is involved in the selection process, but other people are as well, so there’s an element of collaboration; she’s not writing introductions in gallery booklets for exhibitions, so she’s not doing the writing and research side of things; she’s not making art herself … so she’s more of an agent for other people doing things, rather than someone who is directly producing herself, and that tends to make her quite unusual and easy to dismiss in a way.
Usually, collectors, patrons, philanthropists, gallerists are able to have another producer string to their bow that helps them be taken seriously. She doesn’t have that; she’s purely an agent: she gets people in contact with each other; she acts as a catalyst for relationships and connections, but she isn’t a producer. That makes her quite problematic because the way she writes about herself makes it a case of ‘What’s my purpose?’ I think that’s why she is so full of self-doubt: ‘I need to be taken seriously, but I’m going to undercut myself at the same time. I really regret that I gave lots of things away’ – but that meant that her name is in all sorts of galleries and collections acoss the world and is part of the reason why the name is still visible. So she doesn’t fit with standard behaviours of male versions of that and she doesn’t fit particulary well with the female versions because she’s not this creating person. She’s self-fashioning … it’s an act of production, but it’s not one that’s generally taken seriously … She’s very glamorous but she’s not very attractive. She over-the-tops to compensate.
Judging by the film we saw, there’s so much shocking sexism and snobbery about that.
That’s partly why I find her so fascinating: she highlights some of those sexist attitudes and expectations because they almost provide the excuse for not being able to take her seriously because she doesn’t produce in the same way and she isn’t doing the same thing as them. Actually, collecting the sorts of things she was and presenting them in galleries wasn’t the norm for anybody at the time, and least of all for a woman. So there are all sorts of ways in which she could be dismissed – and then to add in the fact she had a relationship with so-and-so ‘and so we can’t possibly take into consideration they were actually any good as an artist …’ Well, actually, we can! All the other people have leapt on board now, but Peggy was there first!
So she was really quite key, but the snobbery and the sexism are quite shocking – the old-fashioned ideas of connoisseurship that she challenges because she mixes the roles: collectors have their collections in their private places or they make a public donation to something else; you didn’t set up your own gallery where you might sell stuff; you might buy stuff if there were things left over if you didn’t want your artists to go home empty handed. But Peggy breaks all the rules and expectations and that’s where snobbery and sexism can really take hold …
Let’s talk about your writing now. As a female academic yourself, how important is writing – being an author – to you personally and to your career?
I don’t conventionally fit expectations – all these things that keep connecting me to Peggy! I’m not a subject academic lecturer, I work mostly as a studies strategy teacher with students with mental health issues and specific learning difficulties … I like writing … and I hate writing! … I don’t think writing is easy for a lot of people. I certainly have never found it easy. But do I like doing it? Yes, I like having done it, but that’s not quite the same as liking doing it. It’s important to me that I still do writing in some form or another because it keeps those skills honed, in practice. I like doing things like talks and conferences because I write it to be heard … I don’t write things that are meant to be heard as if I were writing to be read on the page. There are different things about the audience …. It’s important that I gauge what the audience is that I’m communicating to. I script it with every pause and every line because then I know exactly how long it’s going to take and not be given a ten-minute slot and speak for forty-five minutes.
I’m a writer of fiction, while you’re a writer of academic non-fiction, and also an accomplished speaker, so I imagine we’re approaching the subject of publication and audience from different perspectives. In your view, what are the similarities and differences between the two?
I think once you’ve got your head round who you’re writing for then the format and style become less of an issue. Then the experience of writing is much more about the individual person. So part of the reason why I work quite well with students who experience perfectionism and procrastination is ‘Hey! Been there! Done that! …’ It means I’ve learnt an awful lot about the strategies to get around that and overcome the sensations of the paralysed moments over the keyboard … and rethink and come back to it. So I talk a lot to my students about being virtuous but not effective … I think a lot of writers struggle with that by ending up being very virtuous and doing stuff, but not necessarily getting closer to where [they] wanted or needed to be …
Again it comes back to purpose, thinking about your audience and the nature of the writing you are trying to do and who it’s for. I think that can be valuable to unpick … so I don’t go too far off at a tangent … not stopping myself doing incredibly interesting things like reading, but maybe having a reading journal and make a note of all the details, how to find it, why I thought it was interesting, and I’ll come back to that notebook at a point where it’s not distracting me …
I’ve always tried to keep my hand in with lots of different sorts of writing. If I can work out who the audience is, what it’s for, what proportions it needs to have – then that gives me a shape to work within so that the distractions and misdirections are perhaps more easy to manage.
Academia is more and more adapting itself to market imperatives and is called upon increasingly to justify itself in terms of its usefulness and economic benefit. What is your opinion about this? Have academic independence and integrity been compromised?
I’m very bad at playing politic! … I’ve been around this university for about sixteen years on both sides of the desk … so I’ve seen how much it’s changed … It is more market driven. How does that relate to education and the quality of writing? It’s problematic. I’ve always been quite open about the fact that I appreciate it’s not necessarily a good thing for either a student or an institution that somebody takes thirty-five years to write a PhD in a way that, historically, it was potentially possible … Equally, I think that what is produced is now much more a product to meet a particular requirement. It’s responding to audience on one level, it’s responding to criteria on one level, but does it mean you always get the best research or do you get the research that can be done in three to four years within these frames?
I think there is increasingly less space within academia for the big projects, the things where you might not know an answer within the next ten years … Some research might potentially take a generation. If you can’t come up with measurable impact assessments and so on … does that mean it’s not worth doing? Not necessarily. We’ve changed what PhD research and academic writing is. I’m not saying that it is necessarily always worse, but there are certain things it no longer does. People who I knew who were quite established academics when I started, and who are now emeritus professors, would not necessarily have been able to have the time and space to do the sort of research projects that needed a lot of thinking time – a lifetime’s worth of observation and doing ideas over, thinking about philosophical thoughts and changes over time. I don’t think there’s the same space for that sort of thinking as there once was. That feels limiting …
And you have the very obvious marketization thing, which is ‘Where’s my 2.1?’ … No! Despite recent language to the contrary, you’re actually not a customer buying something, you are accessing the opportunity to learn from it. To use a lovely analogy: it’s no good just having a gym membership, you actually have to use it. So it’s no good just getting a place at university, you have to do something with it; you have to stretch your brain; you have to do the reading and research; you have to engage with the support and the advice. And then you probably will do better than you might have done without that. But there is no guarantee! …
Marketization is not as straightforward as ‘people will be put off!’ They’re not necessarily put off. I think the level of investment and expectation they have of it of providing the appropriate outcome has probably ramped up. And by far the impact of students managing the level of stress to deal with that expectation is always growing … Mental health issues are on the increase in education at all levels and that’s disconcerting … in the broader context [students’] capacity to manage that is harder for them.
We may be entering a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – in which, for the first time, humankind must contemplate its own extinction as a direct result of its own activities, a process that has already begun and which could be completed very quickly indeed. What are your thoughts on this? If you could save from destruction one single book and one other work of art, what would they be?
Given my fascination with Surrealism and given my interest in exploring somebody who resolutely collected modern art, I have to say that one of the works I would probably want to save would be resolutely not that. I have a ridiculously burning love for a painting of Ophelia by J. W. Waterhouse … There are innumerable depictions of Ophelia … but … why I particularly like that version is because it’s the only one where I felt that it captured something of the loss of sanity in her expression.
[Ophelia has] a beautiful blue dress; she’s got beautiful flowers around her; there’s people in the background on a bridge; and she’s running towards the water and her expression is somewhere between blank and horrified – almost a sense of ‘I’m aware that I’m not in full control of my capacities any more, but I don’t know what else to do’ – in the context of the death of her father, the abandonment with Hamlet being sent away. It’s still one of the pictures I come back to. I love it. I don’t know why I still have a real passion for it.
If not that painting, I would love the beautiful portrait of Peggy that is the Man Ray picture of her from when she was in her early twenties … which I have in various versions all over my house … Peggy’s my wonderful figure of agency and the Ophelia figure … I love Hamlet! It’s an amazing text. It’s always rewarding to come back to and because it links the visual and the written I think that’s one of the reasons why I still love that particularly.
So might Hamlet be the text you’d want to save?
I think it probably would – because it’s something I can endlessly go back to with all the different stage versions that I’ve seen in my head and the different intonations of the lines and the different emphasis that’s given to things. It’s such an endlessly rewarding text but particularly as something that is performed – because, again, it’s the fact that it’s not just one thing , it’s the fact that it links to other things, so it’s a written text but the only way really to appreciate it is to see or hear it being dramatized, being acted, people being involved in performing it. So, again, it’s that cross-over between the two.
It seems to run through your life and studies!
I think you’ve made a marvellous choice. You’re a woman after my own heart!
Thank you very much! It’s been a pleasure! I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
I’ve enjoyed listening to your views! Thank you!
Lisa Rüll was born and initially educated in Nottingham, UK. Following three years of Open University study alongside her work at a local accountancy firm, she moved to the West Midlands in the early 1990s. She completed her first class honours degree in History of Art and Design and Women’s Studies at the University of Wolverhampton and subsequently taught at the university and other HE and FE institutions in the Midlands and Yorkshire. She also worked for a year at Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum co-organizing a number of exhibitions before completing a part-time Masters in Feminist History, Theory and Criticism in the Visual Arts at the University of Leeds (Distinction). In 2000 she started part-time a PhD in the School of American and Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham on Peggy Guggenheim (which she finished with full-time AHRB funding). Lisa was one of the 100 Heroes nominated by students to mark a hundred years of the University of Nottingham Student Union.