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Our Women

Colum McCann – The Comedy of Women, 2016

It is utterly humbling to think that in art our motives are similar to those who made the cave paintings: we attempt bring to life the texture of who and what we are. In this way we remember for ourselves, and we hope to remember for others. The best art – writing, cinema, painting, dance – creates and suggests and inspires further art. Nothing ever finishes. We turn and turn in the widening gyre.

Blake as Dante. Longfellow as Dante. Rodin as Dante. Listz as Dante. Mandlestam as Dante. Woolf, Elliot, Joyce, Pinsky, Borges, Beckett, Sontag, Heaney: all as Dante. Every atom belonging to one as good as belongs to another.
“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the seperation between himself and the artist,” says Tolstoy. “Not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.”

What is so profound and beautiful about Marina Sagona’s “The Comedy of Women” is that she chooses to continue this tradition and further widen the gyre. She re-opens the possibility of what art can continue to do: not as something derivative, but as something entirely raw and new. 

Sagona is an image-rascal, unbound by convention but still prepared to acknowledge the deep, helixed history of art and story-telling. She braids colour, form, myth, literature and intellect together. Part of her modus operandi is the acknowledgment that we go forwards by glancing backwards first, even if only to see where we have been. She, in essence, brings a new light to an ancient form, and revitalise our relationship not only with the images, but with the poem itself.

One of the primary forces of Sagona’s art is to recreate the present within the historic. She takes the women of the Divine Comedy as her launching point to be faithful to our own time, and yet also be faithful to the past. They are characters of the now while simultaneously, and elegantly, carrying their past with them. In this way the drawings have a forward movement, dramatised by the swirl of the brush. There is a spectacular tension between the drawings’ extant sexuality and the backwards tug of time. Dante’s women – or rather Sagona’s women – or rather ourwomen – are lucid. They are honest. They are empty of nostalgia. They exist now, and yet we are made aware that, of course, they existed then. They become eternal. Sagona does what great artists have always done – she isolates the core of significance, empties the frame of everything but the necessary, and then passes it along to us. 

Yes, the women are ours now.

Sagona says that she began these drawings wanting to confront herself, as a non- believer, with one of the most religious and beautiful of books, a text so profoundly rooted in her culture “that even my illiterate and beloved Nonna Pina used to quote Dante talking about every day events.” She chose to focus on the women because she thought they could be her red thread in the maze of The Divine Comedy's many layers.

And so began the adventure. Sagona knew she wanted to find land, but she wasn’t sure what shape the actual landscape would take. After two years of work, she realized that the drawings were steering her in an unexpected direction. The current took her. She arrived at shore. Instead of just guiding her through The Comedy, it struck her that the drawings were whispering a far more personal story: as if they were one person, one woman. In that one woman were all women, including, of course, herself. Her own inferno. Her own purgatory. Her own paradise. The drawings, then, are a reconciliation to herself. And if, then, she was putting her finger on her own pulse, she knew that she should open that pulse to others. She was interested in knowing how other women – Claire Messud, Anna Funder, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Sebold, Judith Thurman – would see the drawings. She wanted them to inhabit the drawings and to create from there. In this way she further widens the gyre of both time and form. (I myself couldn’t help thinking that so many of the drawings were of Molly Bloom and that she and Beatrice were somehow brought together in the undulating lines).

Sagona has arrived at a rawness that speaks directly to the body, both male and female. She carves and sculpts and even rhymes. She draws at a deliberate distance from sentimentality, though not of course sentiment. She makes the right decisions about how to communicate and what to leave out. The solitude of the figures somehow undoes their loneliness.

Rodin once said to William Rothenstein: “People say I think too much about women. Yet after all what is there more important to think about?”  
What, indeed? Sagona re-gifts us those women whom we knew from the past. In this way she achieves what Tolstoy was looking for: she allows the living to extend the imaginations of the dead. They are forever our.