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Reproduced courtesy of Wendy Sharpe

Annette with Crown

Date: 1998
Dimensions:
Overall: 1005 x 800 x 30 mm
Medium: Pastel on paper, framed
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Copyright: ©Wendy Sharpe
Classification:Art
Object Name: Pastel
Object No: 00032436
Place Manufactured:Australia
Related Place:Sydney,

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    Description
    A pastel drawing on paper by Wendy Sharpe titled 'Annette with Crown - study for the Annette Kellerman mural, panel 5' for the Cook + Phillip Park pool.

    In 1999 a new indoor swimming centre opened in Sydney. High on its walls were dramatic mural panels by Sydney artist Wendy Sharpe celebrating Annette Kellerman's extravagant life .
    Wendy Sharpe, known for her bold and sensual portraits, has celebrated these qualities in her mural panels at Cook +
    Phillip Park pool. She made hundreds of sketches to resolve the subject and composition. She painted eight scenes
    in acrylic - each measuring 3.1 x 4.8 metres - a mammoth undertaking painted as freeze frames as if scenes from one of Kellerman's silent movies.
    SignificanceAustralian swimmer Annette Kellerman became an aquatic star in the baths, rivers, oceans, theatres and cinemas in Europe and America of the early 20th century.
    Dubbed Australia's Mermaid and the Perfect Woman, Sydney - born Kellerman learnt to swim to combat the effects of rickets. She became a champion swimmer; went to England performing swimming and diving tricks and attempted
    to swim the Channel three times.
    Lured to vaudeville in America, she was arrested for her provocative swimsuit and then went on to star in silent movies. In 1952 American Esther Williams starred as Annette in the Busby Berkeley musical Million Dollar Mermaid, bringing her vivacious life to the big screen.
    HistoryAnnette Kellerman was a larger than life character. When America's MGM studio made 'Million Dollar Mermaid' as a vehicle for its glamorous aquatic star Esther Williams, its spectacular swimming scenes and aquacades choreographed by Busby Berkeley, brought the story of the ageing aquatic star to the big screen with all the drama and vivaciousness of her exotic and energetic life.

    And the figurative, lush, expressionistic style of Australian artist Wendy Sharpe is also an equally fitting medium to portray the Kellerman story - albeit in a different context, a different era and for a different public. The Sharpe paintings consist of a spectacular series of large scale murals decorating the high walls of Sydney's newest indoor swimming centre - designed to celebrate the life of a Sydney swimmer of a century earlier.

    Celebratory they certainly are. Romantic and dramatic too. Kellerman, variously promoted as 'Australia's Mermaid', 'Neptune's daughter, and 'the Perfect Woman', had a spectacular career as an aquatic entertainer in vaudeville and film in the first two decades of the 20thcentury. In fact her Australianness was part of her mystique. She would call out aloud 'Cooee' before diving into the pool during her early swimming demonstrations at London's Hippodrome.

    It is fitting that Sharpe has chosen to feature episodes from her life story in a painterly cinematic form. A series of huge vibrant murals appear as freeze frames of high points of her life, all in a swimming pool of course. The episodic composition and location of the murals in the building quite cleverly echoes the construction of a film for the murals read like frames from one of Kellerman's silent movies. Annette Kellerman is the focal point of each frame, and the scenes are bustling with action, yet silent.

    The life represented is a glamorous one. A fascinating time historically. It was an era when women swimmers could be movie stars - the turn of the 20th century - the era of gender segregation, firm ideas about morality, decency, fashion, femininity and women's sport, and the contest over practical swimwear. Above all, it was an era when appearing in a clingy woollen swimsuit was considered extremely risqué, even pornographic.

    The Cook + Phillip Park pool near St Mary's Cathedral in the city, opened in 1999, is the second of Sydney's pools to celebrate Kellerman's life. The Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre at Enmore near Marrickville was named in her honour since Kellerman was born in Marrickville in 1886. In an unusual move for a swimming pool project the Sydney City Council and architects Laurence Nield & Associates commissioned local artist Wendy Sharpe to paint murals along the interior of its new pool.

    Wendy Sharpe is a Sydney artist, born in 1960. She has won the Archibald and Sulman prizes, the Portia Geach Memorial Award and two travelling art scholarships. In late 1999 she travelled to East Timor as an official war artist for the Australian War Memorial to record her impressions of Australia's peace keeping operations.

    The drama of Kellerman's life is well suited to the expressive, painterly, lush and at times erotic style of Sharpe's brush, to her interest in figures, her humour, flamboyance and her penchant for the theatrical. Her 1996 Archibald winning entry, entitled 'Self- portrait as Diana of Erskineville', was described by Edmund Capon as
    'probably the raunchiest painting to win' (Sydney Morning Herald 25/03/1996). Wendy Sharpe worked on the murals for two years, doing research on Kellerman's life to select the events depicted in the mural.

    The mural in the Cook+Phillip Park pool complex consists of eight panels, painted in acrylic on fibreglass, each measuring 3.1 metres by 4.8 metres - and best viewed from across the 50 metre pool. The mural project was quite a ground-breaking commission. It placed paintings on the humid and chlorinated walls of a public swimming pool and six years later it still shines.

    The first mural features Kellerman as a young swimmer - in three poses on the one mural - receiving her trophies as a NSWs swimming champion (she became NSW 100 yards champion in the trudgeon (overarm) stroke in 1902) being watched by a young Kellerman as a child in callipers and an elegant Kellerman on the diving board.
    After conducting popular swimming and diving demonstrations with fish in the Melbourne Aquarium Kellerman embraced the theatrical side of the sport and left for England to help her cash-strapped family financially.

    What followed was a truly remarkable career in long distance swimming, vaudeville and then film. She swam a marathon along the soupy Thames and parts of the English coastline. There were three unsuccessful but highly publicised attempts to swim the English Channel, and challenge swims on the Seine and the Danube in Europe,
    against both male and female swimmers. All the Kellerman continued to perform ever more exotic swimming and diving demonstrations in English baths. She then moved to vaudeville theatres in America, where her acts combined
    swimming, theatre, ballet and increasingly, titillating striptease. Annette pushed the boundaries performing in her figure hugging suit. At this time this was nothing new in Australia, mind you, but in America it created a sensation.

    From her early swimming career in the first mural, Sharpe has presented Kellerman's spectacular rise to international stardom in chronological sequence. There's her swimming in the annual race along the Seine in 1907- where as a fluent French speaker (Annette's mother was French), she raced alongside the male competitors, coming equal third and feted by the press. Next Annette is arrested for indecent exposure in her revealing one-piece bathing costume on a Boston beach in 1906 (Annette regarded her championing of the less restrictive women's swimwear and
    physical fitness as her greatest achievements). Then we see the promotional theatre banners for 'Australia's Mermaid'; Annette performing as a mermaid queen in her aquacade; a silent movie scene of Annette in the embrace of a leading man; and then backstage on the film set.

    Kellerman enjoyed tremendous success with her scantily clad mythological underwater film stories - especially in 'Neptune's Daughter' of 1914, less so in the case of the $1 million dollar 'Daughter of the Gods' (1916) and later films - 'The Honor System' and 'Queen of the Sea' (1918) and the 'Art of Diving' (1920).

    The finished murals celebrate key moments relating to Kellerman's Australian connections. Annette made several trips to Australia where she entertained troops during both world wars and the theatre scene features the poster outside the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney.

    The Kellerman studies reveal aspects of Wendy Sharpe's working practice. Initially the mural was conceived as a frieze but accommodating the intrusive steel structural supports meant that the mural was divided into eight. A large part of Annette's early fame in vaudeville sprung from the Director of a Harvard University gymnasium classification of her as 'the perfect woman'- in comparison to the classical ideals shown on sculptures of Venus de Milo and Diana. Kellerman also lectured widely and in 1918 published 'Physical beauty and how to keep it' and the partly autobiographical 'How to Swim'.

    The last panel shows Annette on a beach on the Gold Coast accompanied by an imaginary green tailed mermaid, and sensual tritons and nymphs. Annette Kellerman wrote in 'How to Swim in 1918, 'though a professional mermaid for the movies I still wait to see my first one sitting on a damp grey rock combing her long green hair'.

    - Daina Fletcher
    Curator, Australian National Maritime Museum



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