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In the Frame for May 2012: Anna Kavan’s ‘Portrait of Luz’

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Having recently seen a body of contemporary artwork work by Heather and Ivan Morrison inspired by the life and work of the novelist Anna Kavan (1901-1968), on display at The Hepworth Wakefield, the Archivist has written the following about Kavan’s portrait of Luz, the ‘elusive protagonist’ of her novels Ice and Mercury:

The phrase ‘elusive protagonist’ might appear a contradiction in terms, but anyone who has read Anna Kavan’s Ice will understand. Its plot centres on the narrator’s pursuit of a desirable yet unattainable young woman through a dystopian ice-bound landscape. By its absence as well as its presence, her slender figure – depicted in turn as vulnerable, ethereal and painfully thin – dominates the narrative, for the greater part of it in absentia. As a recent reviewer has commented, it is nearly impossible to provide a plot spoiler for Ice, because “its meaning shifts with each reading”.1

None of the characters in Ice are named, but its female protagonist reappears as ‘Luz’ in Mercury, in which Kavan extends her apocalyptic imaginings. Her work has inspired Heather and Ivan Morrison to create an installation of contemporary art (and script a puppet show for performance within the installation) at The Hepworth Wakefield, in which the woman, depicted in white chalk and bone, is named ‘Anna’. To regard Ice as simply autobiographical, however, would be to diminish the imaginative achievement of its author.

Indeed, Kavan’s creative powers extended to painting, and one of the Archives & Museum’s recent acquisitions is Kavan’s imagined portrait of Luz, “her extreme thinness corresponding as it does to Anna’s idea of the female stereotype…nonetheless sexualised by full breasts and defined curves”.2 This haunting image seems to capture well the impression of alternating corporeality and insubstantiality left with the reader of Ice.

Kavan’s only association with Bethlem and the Maudsley was a brief spell as a research assistant at Mill Hill Emergency Hospital, to which Maudsley staff were evacuated for the duration of the Second World War. In the 1940s she also wrote for the literary review magazine Horizon. One of her pieces could be considered without anachronism to be a product of the anti-psychiatric movement, if only it had been published twenty-five years later.3 Kavan is best remembered for her visionary fiction, but perhaps deserves more recognition within the pantheon of twentieth-century British authors than she has received to date, despite the existence of a learned society dedicated to her memory. It is good to see her work continuing to fire the artistic imagination. Perhaps one day her painting will be the subject of an extended study worthy of comparison to those that have taken her writing career as their point of departure.