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Working with Words: Jane Clark

Read Tuesday, 12 Nov 2019

We spoke with Senior Research Curator at Mona, Jane Clark, about avoiding heffalump traps, looking at what makes humans human and the unreliability of memory.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photograph of Jane Clark

Laugh: Winnie-the-Pooh and A. A. Milne’s poetry read aloud by my parents – when I was very young. They’re definitely guides to life (with the E.H. Shepard drawings, of course). I still play Poohsticks on occasion, I avoid lines on the pavement and heffalump traps, and I do like a little bit of butter to my bread. My most recent laugh out loud was Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation. Human beings don’t change much.

Cry: probably The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier. It’s a based-on-truth story of children, around my age at the time, escaping from occupied Poland in the Second World War. My grade three teacher read it to us in class, a chapter every few days, but I borrowed a library copy so I could get ahead and stay emotionally immersed. My mirror neurons have always been very susceptible to books. 

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I was totally over-confident as a child: poems, stories, plays for my school friends and siblings to perform in (fortunately for posterity, undocumented).

As a teenager, most of my writing was schoolwork. But a lot of that writing was about writing. I had fantastic teachers and loved both English and English Literature.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

Retail, waitressing and handing out flyers at an R-rated cinema showed me I should avoid jobs with no reading and writing involved. Since those dark days, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I don’t class myself as ‘a writer’; but writing has been an essential part of my work as a curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, as Director of Paintings at Sotheby’s, and now back in the art museum world at Mona. I love sharing research and I hope people can realise through what I write that art can be a window on to almost everything. My boss, David Walsh, says my writing’s changed a lot since I joined Mona (in 2007), and he’s right: it targets a much wider readership, is more subjective, and way less certain. 

Retail, waitressing and handing out flyers at an R-rated cinema showed me I should avoid jobs with no reading and writing involved.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

My work involves much more than writing; although I love that aspect despite the doubt and pain involved in its production. So I have plenty of other art museum duties when I’m not writing catalogue essays or Art Wank for the Mona O (our electronic label device). At school I assumed I’d do something scientific – medicine or biology. However, given that Mona’s key interests include what makes us humans human, I suppose I am now doing a bit of what I might have been doing in another life. It’s endlessly interesting and I’m very fortunate.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about writing?

‘The best first draft is the one on paper’ (my very wise and inspiring aunt, Margaret Clark, publisher at A. & C. Black, London, and Editor of Who’s Who).

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

I still use a paper diary, but it’s not much more than appointments and reminders. For just one year, 1979, I kept a very detailed diary: my second year out of university, while working for a private gallery and writing a history for the Victorian Arts Centre. I found it 30 years later, totally forgotten. I must have had too much time on my hands, but it could be a useful little document one day: a year of a life in Melbourne. Most fascinating though, its contents prove how vastly unreliable memory can be. 

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I struggled with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love a few years ago. But I loved Sons and Lovers at 16. So much depends on when you read something. I quite enjoyed Jane Austen’s Persuasion when I read it as a teenager: not a patch on Pride and Prejudice or Emma, I thought then. But it was absolutely brilliant post marriage and children. Duff Cooper’s Operation Heartbreak is a read and re-read gem for me.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I don’t think so!

I’m very bad at knuckling down in the morning and tend, once I really get on a writing roll, to keep going late into the night. I suspect it’s because writing has always been only some of what I do: often the most rewarding part but not the most urgent by comparison with emails, exhibition briefs and motherhood. 

Writing has often been … the most rewarding part [of work] but not the most urgent by comparison with emails, exhibition briefs and motherhood.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I’d probably take a red pen to most of it if I had a chance. The great thing about writing for the Mona O is it’s all electronic and can be corrected, updated, tweaked or disappeared in an instant.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

I’d very much like to ask Johannes Vermeer if he used lenses and mirrors and some form of camera obscura in his practice as an artist in the mid 1600s – which is not proven but seems very likely on the evidence. We’ve run an experiment at Mona looking at how he might have done so (Hound in the Hunt). I’d ask, if he did, did he also keep the fact a secret? (David Hockney and David Walsh think he did and it was cheating.) And did he make preliminary drawings? And would he like to try my iPhone camera? 

And I’d ask Julian Barnes to join us, because his book of essays, Keeping an Eye Open, contains some of my favourite writing on art. 

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