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World War II refugee's light touch

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Lithuanian Refugees

Sibley, Irina. Self-Portrait of the Artist's Wife. Lytlewode Press, UK, 2007. RRP $60

It was not a good time or place to be born: Lithuania in 1944. The sounds of Russian bombs and German artillery contended with one another while a young woman gave birth. Yet the first two sentences of Irina Sibley's memoir are not weighed down with fear or foreboding, nor is there a sense of an uncertain self. 'A girl-child is born,' she announces. 'It is me.'

In her first five years Irina experienced hunger, displacement, bewilderment. She describes the transit camps in Germany and Italy and the family's struggle to find a new home in Australia, to resist fragmentation, to begin again. All these elements are there in her memoir, and she does not deny the pain. And yet the buoyant tone of 'it is me' tells the reader that this story will be one of courage and achievement, and the capacity to enjoy good fortune, hard won.

In choosing her title, Self-Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Sibley gives her memoir a double focus. Aware of their contradictions, she invokes two familiar artistic traditions. The steady gaze in the mirror produces the self-portrait. Paintings of the artist's wife are sometimes celebrations of a marriage, sometimes homage to a muse. Often they have a more casual origin: when a painter is in the mood for portraiture, his wife is the nearest available sitter.

Irina Sibley evokes her childhood in Bathurst, schooldays in rural New South Wales, art school in Sydney. Her close family relationships (brilliantly captured in the evocative sepia photographs of three generations) worked for and against Irena's wish to be an artist, but on the whole this is a story of support, not conflict.

Well before her marriage to the celebrated painter Andrew Sibley, Irina found a place in Sydney's art world. She gives a lively account of meeting the reclusive Ian Fairweather at his Bribie Island hideout. The equally reclusive Godfrey Miller gave her lessons without letting her know his name. Other encounters with the famous make this a valuable record of the Australian art scene from the 1960s to the present day.

As wife and mother, painter, teacher, writer and illustrator, Sibley herself has used her gifts in a remarkable career, which this memoir describes with a light touch, and no regrets.

Sibley's book is an exquisite production, an example of what the designer's art can create by working in harmony with the text. For the reader, double pleasure.

Brenda NiallBrenda Niall is an Australian biographer, literary critic and journalist. Her most recent book is Life Class: the Education of a Biographer, published by MUP.



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Existing comments

I am sure the story would tell that Andrew Sibley was not a celebrated painter but a survivor in the Australian art world. Mr Sibley has contributed marvelously but has allowed others their focal points to be the celebrated.

Laurence Beck | 11 May 2008  

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