new zealand electronic poetry centre


Janet Charman



Notes on the cover images for Rapunzel Rapunzel and snowing down south

In the Rapunzel myth the tower is formed to imprison Rapunzel when a wicked witch (who has stolen her by trickery from her real parents) enchants a well in the garden. The well grows into a tower. So there's a sense of the patriarchal overriding and suppressing the matriarchal.

And where did the old witch get her water then? One version I read, very practical, said she also magicked a tap in the side of the tower.

Anyway this appropriation entails taking a female image, something embedded in, nourished by, the earth, Papatuanuku, and turning it into a male image, Rangi, the sky father. The Princess has been imprisoned in a phallic object by her wicked foster-mother, yet another of those old women complicit in enacting the dictates of patriarchal culture.

I like the Hodgkins painting because it seems to suggest an alternative path. It is a celebration of what lies beneath: The water source: the living wellspring: is subtly shown in two little fleur-de-lis shapes bubbling out of a black centre. There are no rigid walls or projecting edifices here, as in the wells of English fairytales that I'm used to seeing in picture books telling the Rapunzel tale. This well seems like a Moroccan/Moorish kind of design. Very practical. There are wells like this in India.

The significance of the well is further reinforced by the presence of the jug. The water can be carried away and shared for various purposes. I also think that a viewer does need the written title to put this painting together. As a writer I like that idea. I think that to New Zealand eyes the picture is mysterious without the decoding phrase mentioning the well because none of ours look like this.

For me, once I was aware that the plinth the figure is standing on is the apron of the well the painting resonates in a particular way. There's the mysterious enchantment of the evening: The magically deep bright colours at the very end of sunset: That extraordinary luminous quality the instant before nightfall: The sense of a warm wild wind alive in the atmosphere: Its movement communicated by the wavery lines highlighted in white: These combined with the presence of the central figure to give me a sense of someone waiting at the water source for a special person to come . . . the idea that something momentous could be about to happen.

'Jesus met the woman at the well.'
A place where women congregate.
A place where men go to talk privately to women.
A site of women's work. Her undervalued work. Her back breaking exploitation.
A place to engage in sexual activity.
Wells are the sites of many spiritual centres of ancient worship.
The sites from which we give birth.
The figure by the well is gender ambiguous. Is this Prince or Princess charming?
And s/he is looking out towards the viewer, the painter. Who is s/he waiting for? Is s/he waiting for me? What could happen next?

Ursula Bethell, like Hodgkins here, adeptly uses the garden and its cultural acceptability as a public site where women may meet and work, to make some subversive observations about gender relations. She proposes her narrator as an active, autonomous, independent artist.

Someone free to make relationships, and art, which falls outside the conventional constraints of patriarchal culture.

I used the image as my cover art because it affirms both women's communal responsibilities and their traditions.

It's a place where men can be welcome to meet with women on egalitarian terms if they acknowledge her work. They can help. They can play their part. A place to talk. A place to drink.

It's nearly dark. The boundaries between the sexes and within the world of women can be enlarged here or perhaps entirely broken.


My thoughts about the embroidery for the cover of snowing down south are on the same lines.

But here the embroidery depicts a heterosexual couple -- an English lover and his lass, Hey Nonny No! -- but they've been worked in silk and lace by an anonymous  woman artist.

For me the lace boundary is the petticoat/snow of my title. Work 'on the edge,' showing the underpinnings. White work is the most banal and beautiful and crippling of all the kinds of handwork. White work is exacting labour for no acknowledgment and the intended outcome is something beautiful that upholds (unattainable) ideals about the love of a married couple for each other. These ideas were very attractive to women in Suburbia in the 1950s. Or anyway they were meant to be.

If you look at the female figure's eyes, however, they're blank. She has no pupils. She could be blind. The artist who created this piece probably risked blindness herself if she embroidered many more like this!

I found it in a second hand shop and bought it for a dollar.

25 January 2002


Last updated 26 May, 2002