by Jo Mazelis
Christine Keeler was born in February 1942 at a time when the Second World War had already been raging for three years. Bombs had fallen out of the sky and devastated cities like the capital, London and also towns with ports and industries; Swansea, Liverpool, Coventry, Hull and Bristol. Countless shops, factories and homes were destroyed. Young men went war and never came home. Or they were horribly brutalised by what they had seen; what they had done.
By the end of the war there was a severe housing shortage that continued for years after. Christine, like many others, grew up in a home created by her step-father from two abandoned railway carriages. This was not uncommon, people lived where they could, in caravans and barns and overcrowded houses. It was the working classes who suffered the most from this situation, others – those with resources and money – were better off.
By 1966 when Ken Loach made his film ‘Cathy Come Home’ the acute housing shortage and the rigid welfare system were enduring problems that caused misery for the working poor. In the 1960s as Christine Keeler came to maturity the UK was still a society organised along strict lines of class and gender. Women were considered less intelligent than men. They were also deemed to be physically weaker, emotionally weaker and not worth educating or employing. Rape within marriage was not made a crime until 1991.
For a working class girl like Keeler there were few opportunities. But Keeler had one great advantage, she was beautiful. Tall and slim and graceful with great bone structure, full lips and doe eyes. She also looked much older than her nineteen years – more like a woman than a teenager – a factor that arguably made her seem more in charge of her life and destiny than she actually was.
Since the time of the Profumo Affair Christine Keeler’s image has often replaced or stood in for everything else about her. She was and still remains a symbol of sin and danger. She was sent to prison for perjury following the trial of ‘Lucky’ Gordon, but in reality the punishment was for other sins – for being sexually active, for being beautiful, for not accepting her lot in life.
The artworks in the ‘Dear Christine’ exhibition curated by Fionn Wilson illustrate the fact that there is no single Christine Keeler. This is not just because she has been represented by a variety of artists but it’s also because she continues to have multiple selves. This is true of all of us but it seems particularly pronounced with Keeler – even more since the recent BBC drama ‘The Trial of Christine Keeler’. Before that was there was the 1989 film ‘Scandal’ with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer playing Christine to John Hurt’s Stephen Ward. It was always Keeler’s looks which were judged and they were further judged as she grew older as if the natural processes of aging were a disgrace that were deemed newsworthy, even to the extent that she was served up for public scrutiny when she was caught on camera going to the shops in later life.
In the famous 1963 photograph by Lewis Morley of Keeler in the Arne Jacobsen chair, her expression is conflicted; is she meant to look coy and pouty? Or does it reveal a woman who does not want to expose herself either physically or emotionally?
Amongst the paintings in ‘Dear Christine’ Sadie Lee’s Scandalous presents a version of Keeler as old, as imperfect, as weary. She still straddles the Jacobsen chair, but it is an image which is hard to look at and can seem at first sight cruel, yet really, it is merely honest, opening up a space to contemplate how women are discarded when they age, as if their only worth and interest was the physical beauty of youth. In Shani Rhys-James’ ink portrait, Christine the subject is a bruised, frightened-looking creature – a girl from a fairytale who has just seen the gory contents of Bluebeard’s locked chamber. In another of Rhys James’ works, Pandora’s iPad a naked woman with streaming dark hair opens the digital ‘box’ from which flow all the monsters and goblins of distortion and lies. Caroline Coon’s Anger, Blame, Shame, Ruin, Grief is a sort of Pop art version of Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid with Keeler taking centre stage beneath portraits of four of the men who used and abused her, surrounded by swirling classical masks and serpents. Coon based it on a lost work by the artist Pauline Boty – though she has done in her own hard-edged style.
Similar images of entrapment, of almost cartoonish calamity, of exposure in and by newsprint, by cameras, by enchantment, haunt the exhibition. Wendy Nelson’s sculpture focuses on patriarchy and the establishment – or quite literally, on its members – their stuffed, old school ties like cocks, like frankfurters, but also like a policeman’s truncheon and Pinocchio’s phallic nose.
Julia Maddison’s Remains succeeds in making the medium the message, in one of the show’s simplest, yet to me, most enigmatic and sad artworks. Maddison has taken an ordinary black plastic bag and with a couple of snips has transformed it into the swimsuit Keeler was wearing (or eventually not wearing) that fateful day at the swimming pool at Cliveden in July 1961. The sculpture is displayed casually in the gallery space – even more dangerously than say Carl Andre’s bricks – but speaking so eloquently of nostalgia, of loss, of youth, of women’s sexuality, of freedom, of desire yet also of how humanity disposes of those things it no longer needs – calls them trash and throws them away.
In creating the exhibition ‘Dear Christine’ the curator and artist, Fionn Wilson approached a number of writers to produce work about Keeler. These included Keeler’s son Seymour Platt, Julie Burchill and Amanda Coe. When the exhibition moved from Newcastle to Swansea, Wilson sought out Welsh poets to write about Christine. This had the effect of growing the project like a snowball, so that even more people were concentrating their attention on Keeler’s life and on the events that took place in the 1960s primarily, but also their after effects.
Despite the fact that Christine Keeler produced a number of autobiographies and has been the subject of films and documentaries she remains and will always remain an enigma.
Jo Mazelis is a novelist, poet, short story writer and photographer. Her collection of stories Diving Girls was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book and her debut novel Significance won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her third collection of stories, Ritual, 1969 was long-listed for the Edge Hill award. In the 1980s she worked for several magazines including Spare Rib. She has interviewed and photographed Shani Rhys James, Paula Rego and Nan Goldin, she has also photographed Tilda Swinton, Margaret Atwood, Kathy Acker and Patricia Highsmith amongst many others.
This is a version of the introductory talk Jo Mazelis gave at the opening of the Swansea show.