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The Long and Winding Radioactive Road


Painting Marie was difficult in...ways that I had not previously encountered; I don't mean the usual "hands are my nemesis" difficulties either (those are getting easier with every portrait and references/videos about anatomy). It was more about the essence of what her painting was versus the comparatively bombastic and flashy way I chose to portray Ludwig, what with the treble clef on fire, a synthesizer "axe", and a voluminous plum silk fabric drape around him.


Marie wasn't ever going to be that kind of painting, that much I'd known from the beginning, but unlike Ludwig, I wasn't sure where I was going to go at all, and equally so unlike Ludwig, I didn't know her so well when I started.


Manya, a petite woman from modest means, whose family were rendered financially lacking as punishment for participating in political struggles for independence from Russia, desired a university education so badly that she crept out at night with her sister to attend what was called "floating" university courses. Women at the time were not permitted to go to the University of Warsaw in any capacity, and Russian authorities had taken laboratory instruction completely out of the country's schools. Such was her state that in winter, to stay warm, she simply wore all her clothes, and sometimes even fainted from hunger. But nevertheless, her dedication to her studies could not be dented; nor was her dedication to education for women overall, for Manya (Marie was a name she did not adopt until she went to the Sorbonne) also gave lessons to other women from poor families. She left Poland because France gave her a future that Poland would not: a future which eventually led her to discover radium and polonium, to coin the actual term "radioactivity", to win not one but two Nobel Prizes, raise a family, and tragically lose her husband. Their marriage was, by all accounts, a loving, and supportive one - true partners in their quest for scientific discovery. He was killed in a collision with a horse-drawn cart, and as a widow, per custom at the time, Marie wore only black thereafter. It is of course fairly well known by those who have studied her, that her exposure to and fascination with the elements for which she is now known eventually contributed to her death, as well as rendering her laboratory and documents so radioactive that to this day, one must wear protection before encountering them.


What was perhaps less well understood is when Marie was confronted with the possibility of these elements being dangerous, why she continued to deny it. Even when others in the lab began to wear protective gear, Marie would not, and even later in life when confronted by the deaths of colleagues and workers who handled the materials and succumbed to leukemia brought on by exposure. Marie Curie tended to deny the perils of radiation, until the end - when, chronically ill and almost blind from cataracts, she passed away at 67.


I can't imagine that her fascination with what she described as "fairy lights" would have been sufficiently distracting for a woman of her intelligence and will to create such a mental disconnect with their negative effects, (at least certainly not once they were more well known). I'm not sure we'll ever know exactly why - but that puzzle was the one that sat in my mind as the heart of what I would eventually paint: a person so incredibly determined, talented, and simultaneously endangered. A widow in black. A delicate, pale figure, awash in the glow of what was both incredible, world-altering discoveries and her slow and certain destruction. As for choosing the idea of a dancer, it was born out of the deadly dance portrayed in the "Red Shoes" by Hans Christian Andersen, and Marie's friendship with Loïe Fuller, a dancer and theatre lighting pioneer from Chicago who made her way in Paris.

Dancer or not, I couldn't make Marie look saucy, or flashy, or bright. Something in me just consistently resisted SO many ideas...as if she was looking over my shoulder, eyebrow raised, critical but patient. I tried so many colours of outfits, I tried the famous "red shoes" of fairy tale fame but dismissed them quickly for being too literal and distracting. In fact ANYTHING I tried to add - too much colour, too much...anything seemed to overwhelm her portrait, which was primarily dark, somber...almost empty in comparison to Beethoven and Ada. Not looking at us, but the glow. Not surrounded by props like Beethoven. Not smiling. Just...in another world, the one she had found. She couldn't be too sexy, that seemed rude somehow...for that, too, would be a distraction from who she was. But she was, in her own way, a delicate and practical kind of pretty - I wanted to honour that. She didn't need more, and she didn't want more.


And that's what made it all so hard; I think, for it asked me to paint her in a way that forced me to a level of essentials that I had skirted around with Ada and to a lesser extent Beethoven; with very little to distract the eye, not even too many colours, I was confronted with how to say everything I wanted to, as simply as I could, to not overwhelm where the entire portrait originated - the green glow in her eyes.


Even the heavy silky sleeves I'd given her were too much; and no traditional ballet clothing would work as it was too derivative and distracting - I had to make them sheer. That meant learning how to paint something that WAS sheer, and that meant more focus on legs (no covering them up as had been with Beethoven's leather pants or Ada's metal armour).



Is she a better painting than Beethoven? I don't know. Perhaps in some ways, but not in others. It's hard for me to tell - but I do know that she was a more DEMANDING one, because I had to learn how to say just as much, but with a lot less. She did teach me a lot. Or rather more accurately, she worked my butt off. Thankfully her music went smoothly by comparison.



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