Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

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Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl By Grayson Perry, By Wendy Jones, book reviewGrayson Perry is the sort of person about whom it’s hard not to have an opinion. Mention his name and people fall into three broad camps; those who say ‘Grayson WHO?’, those who say “Ah yes, the controversial potter who won the 2003 Turner Prize” and everyone else smiles and says “The bloke in the dress”. As the wife of a man who’s utterly obsessed by ceramics and spends his life researching potters and stalking the older ones in order to ‘buy before they die’ I was aware of Perry quite a while before he hit the mainstream.

We were sitting in the kitchen of an elderly but very esteemed potter who’d just given us a very nice lunch when the gentleman concerned started to rant about Grayson Perry. “The man can’t paint and he’s not much of a potter.” he said “He’s just pornographer”. He showed me a picture in what was then a recent copy of the leading UK ceramics journal. “Look at that” he said pointing to a pot decorated with an elderly man touching up a young boy. I had to concede that he did seem to have a point. The world of pottery is filled with less than colourful characters – chaps with beards and sandals wearing muesli coloured clothes. Nice, good hardworking folk but seldom flashy and usually with clay under their fingernails. Enter Perry stage right in a gingham dress with his hair tied back with an Alice band creating pots that look gorgeous until you get closer and see the themes of abuse and violence that cover them. In an art form where controversial means changing your kiln temperature or altering your ash glaze, Perry burst in like a bad smell – immediately apparent and hard to shake off.

It’s hard not to be fascinated by what drives this entertaining and charismatic man. When I spotted his biography on the shelves of a second hand book room in a local National Trust property, the juxtaposition of classic ‘old England’ and such a quirky artist meant I had to grab the book, thinking that my husband would love it and add it to his expanding collection of potter (auto)biographies.

It’s All About the Frocks

When seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong wrote about his recovery from testicular cancer, he called the book ‘It’s Not About the Bike’. Perry could equally have called this book ‘It’s Not About the Pots’ and it’s a shame, because unlike those looking for something more sensationalist, I wanted a book about the pots. In ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl‘, Perry has shared his childhood and youth up to the age of 22 with his friend, writer Wendy Jones. However, lest you expect something heavy going, the cover photo of Perry dressed as his alter-ego ‘Claire’ riding on a tricycle soon tips you off that this isn’t the tale of his work or his professional success, it’s the story of how his childhood influenced the man and the artist that he became. It’s crying out for a sequel or sequels since the book takes us only as far as his discovery of ceramics and it stops a long way before he established himself in his field.

Nature or Nurture?

Perry was born in 1960 to a rather dull father and a mother who found her amusements outside her marriage, if you know what I mean. You can’t expect even the dullest father to not mind when your mum gets knocked up by the milkman so divorce followed and young Grayson was caught between a mother and step-father who were rather too tied up in themselves and a father who moved on to start a new life and a new marriage. He sought solace in his teddy bear, the oddly named Alan Measles, with whom Perry started to act out bizarre and complex fantasies which over time became (no other way to put this) a bit kinky. He started to experiment with auto-eroticism in the form of strangulation and wrapping himself tightly in sheets and clothes. He discovered the thrill of Crimplene (I kid you not) and the buzz he got from women’s clothing, dressing in his mother’s clothes and finding himself excitedly aroused. All this evolved to become a more and more integral part of who young Perry saw himself to be. He started to buy women’s clothes, went looking for places to get changed into or out of his clothes and he tangled with the thorny issue of which toilet to go into if you’re planning to dress up whilst you’re in there (do you go into the ladies dressed as a man or come out of the gents dressed as a lady?)

The chapters when Perry is away at art school were some of the ones I found most enjoyable. His open-minded girlfriend and her friends gave him the space to be as wild and crazy as he no doubt needed to be. They took a lot of drugs and worked as little as they could get away with and in this part of the book we start to learn about how he developed as an artist. At last after wading through chapter after chapter of frock-fetishism, I was getting to the meat of the bits I wanted to know more about. Sadly, they were a very small part of the overall book.

Potter or Pornographer?

The great thing about this book is the honesty and the openness that’s expressed on every page. Too many biographies and autobiographies restrict themselves to only telling the reader the ‘nice bits’ or the bits that make the subject of the book look good. Not too many people would jump in both feet first like Perry has and tell you EVERYTHING, regardless of how it reflects on him and how much it might shock his reader. He comes across as warm, funny, honest and likeable, even whilst the things he’s telling you are maybe wriggling into your mind like dirty little worms of discomfort.

When you have an artist whose work is so tied up in his own history and emotions, it’s a fair proposition to create a book about what made him what he is. His pots and his paintings are filled with images of rejection, abuse, mutilation, violence and juvenile sexuality (and LOTS of penises) so it’s natural to want to give some background to why someone feels the need to express himself through such images. The problem is that at times the art gets lost behind the history. The pottery takes second place to Grayson Perry’s greatest artistic products – himself and his alter-ego Claire. It’s so excessively ‘not about the pots’ that my inner voice was crying out “Sod the frocks, tell us how you learned to apply colour, how you worked with glazes, how many pots you exploded before you learned to do it right”.

Recommendation?

It’s really hard to say whether I’d recommend this book. I didn’t like it but even so I would probably buy a sequel if and when it becomes available, in the hope that we’d finally get round to learning about the pots. I’m still not sure who this book is supposed to target. I suspect it’s for those who already love the man, think he’s a genius and would buy his shopping lists if they were published. As someone who’s interested in art in general and pottery more specifically, it’s not my cup of tea. If you want a book to tell you about what Grayson Perry does, then this is not it. If you want an insight into the way his mind works, it might be. And If you’re looking for a bit of titillation and a kinky read about child sexuality then sorry for my judgemental approach but please go see a therapist.

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl
by Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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