BLOG Demi Roberts

NWR Issue r34

Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler, at Swansea’s Elysium Gallery

Stella Vine image from Dear Christine exhibition

The Elysium gallery is an unsuspected little gem at the top of Swansea’s high street. Neatly nestled between two shops with ‘For Sale’ signs in the window, the gallery looks fresh, and adds a spark of life to a rundown area. As I walk in, I am greeted with the aroma of freshly ground coffee, and I’m pleasantly surprised with the size of the place. In addition to three galleries, there is a well-stocked bar with two cosy seating areas. It’s a weekday afternoon and I am alone aside from the woman working behind the bar. The Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler exhibition, she kindly points out, is in gallery one.

I first heard of Christine Keeler when watching season two of The Crown on Netflix. As an introduction, Netflix covered the bases: Keeler was the young woman at the heart of the Profumo affair in 1963. Her affair with John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, alongside her affair with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, contributed to the downfall of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government in 1964. In the years to follow, the media hounded Keeler, unfairly labelling her as a prostitute and threat to national security. As a result, she became a recluse up until her death in 2017. Dear Christine is a touring exhibition curated by Fionn Wilson, which aims to reclaim and reframe Christine Keeler.

The first thing I am drawn to is the strange sculpture in the middle of the room. It depicts a distorted version of a male upper body, made from a pin-striped suit jacket. It’s a dark and solitary thing in a room full of vibrant paintings. The head is featureless except for a long, stick-like nose, clearly alluding to Pinocchio, and around the neck is a dozen or so nun-chucks made of out men’s ties. When I first look at this piece, I wonder how it relates to Christine Keeler. It’s overly masculine, uncanny, and quite uncomfortable to look at. I certainly hadn’t expected to see nun-chucks (a weapon used in traditional Japanese martial arts) in this exhibition. But after a few moments the symbolism becomes clear: the weapons wielded against Keeler were weapons of lies, power and influence. It’s a gripping, powerful piece.

It’s interesting how this sculpture, one of the only pieces which doesn’t directly depict Keeler, occupies the centre of the room, while the paintings and images of Christine herself are pushed to the sides of the gallery walls. I’m not sure if this is a stylistic device, consciously intended, but it works well.

The success of this exhibition lays in its variety. Each image is distinct, with its own voice and narrative, ranging from realism to post-modernism. Keeler is never portrayed singularly as a sex object for the male gaze, as she historically has been, but is portrayed as multiple and layered. One of the strongest paintings in this exhibition is by Sadie Lee (pictured), which is based on photographs taken of Keeler by the Daily Mail shortly before she died. It depicts Keeler in her seventies, sitting on a chair backwards, naked except for a pair of beige sandals. Sadie Lee’s image striking, but it isn’t sexually charged. Instead, the image is imbued with pain and anguish. It fully humanises Christine Keeler, and cleverly addresses society’s harsh standards towards aging women.

Yet despite the skill and variety of art work, one of the most effective pieces for me is a simple old newspaper spread. It needs no introduction or explanation, the pages are off-coloured and date back to 1963. In block letters on the front cover of the News of the World, reads: ‘Confessions of Christine: I’m no spy!’, alongside a tantalising offer of ‘Her own full story’. A contrast from the vibrant art and uncanny sculptures, this spread grounds the viewer immediately back into reality, reminding us of why an exhibition such as Dear Christine is needed.

Dear Christine conveys the problems not just of one woman, or of one scandal, but that of society as a whole. As said by Keeler herself, ‘I took on the sins of everybody, of a generation, really.’ But most simply, and most beautifully, this exhibition inspires compassion.

Demi Roberts is this season’s Swansea Digital Correspondent for NWR, in a new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.

This exhibition has now ended at Swansea’s Elysium, but will reappear in London’s Arthouse1 from 2-29 February 2020. The Trial of Christine Keeler, a six-part BBC Drama series written by award-winning screenwriter Amanda Coe, will air later this year.


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