Cassatt, Duncan: a creative dual biography

October 14, 1990|By MOLLY McQUADE

After Egypt: Isadora Duncan

and Mary Cassatt.

Millicent Dillon.

William Abrahams/Dutton.

393 pages. $24.95. Biography is an exhaustive craft, yet not always a creative one. The biographer, student of another life, peers at the evidence of a personage, sorts it out, then tries to reconstruct it faithfully. But in her dual biography of American painter Mary Cassatt and American dancer Isadora Duncan, novelist Millicent Dillon goes about the job in another way. The results are mixed; the effort is fascinating.

"A Little Original Sin," Ms. Dillon's first biography, was an enviably sure-handed study of the American writer Jane Bowles. Among other things, the book performed a heroically successful rescue mission on a woman who, despite her --ing social life, was quite an enigmatic figure. The match between subject and biographer seemed perfect: More inspired than bedeviled by Bowles' hermeticism, Ms. Dillon yet managed to retain an edge of skepticism that balanced her innate sympathy.

In "After Egypt," Ms. Dillon takes on a different set of goals and risks. The idea of chronicling the lives of two people who never met is provocative -- and hazardous. Cassatt (1845-1926) and Duncan (1878- 1927), contemporaries who worked mostly in Europe, also shared a willingness to break with convention -- Duncan flamboyantly, Cassatt quietly but stubbornly. Had they been less maverick, they could not have achieved what they did as artists. Yet because her twin subjects are not truly twins, not even metaphorically -- rather, they're unconscious counterparts -- Ms. Dillon's account of their parallel lives leans more on motifs and conceits than on facts for support. Facts certainly are provided, as is solid analysis. But the biography is first and foremost an act of imagination.

Over the course of the book, the author switches the tone and direction of her narrative voice -- incisive, evocative, emotive, ripely effusive -- from one woman to the other in brief chapters characterized, to borrow Ms. Dillon's phrase, by "obsessive tunneling." In an intent search for theme and variations, she plays with chronology and literary construction. For Cassatt, a "Puritan" 33 years Duncan's senior, the main theme is death's intrusion on art and life; for Duncan it is the everlasting bloom of creation (complicated by her squandered energy, talent, money and time).

These themes are orchestrated in an almost musical way and epitomized by the influence of Egypt on each woman. Duncan, a self-styled mythic "goddess" of the dance, rejoiced in the "inspiration" she found traveling through an ancient land, although her life plummeted to extremes of penury and chaos. Cassatt felt "crushed by the strength" of Egyptian art and the daily inconveniences of existence in the place -- but later seemed revivified by it.

Ms. Dillon's portrait of Cassatt is in some respects the more convincing of the two, though it is also the more mundane. Born to a close-knit, traditionally upright family, the painter made a declaration of independence by leaving home and pursuing her work single-mindedly, yet remained soberly judgmental, self-critical and traditional in some matters. The fads and fortunes of the art world came to embitter her; she worked

with a growing sense of despair and, always, a knowledge of her limits and those of her times. Cassatt was headstrong, looked to male models in art and beyond it, and was capable of fierce anger, which she more often contained. Her struggle is familiar in its contours, despite Ms. Dillon's sometimes heatedly overwrought, exotic appraisals of the paintings.

The trouble posed by Duncan to any biographer is her megalomaniacal extravagance of scale. An aesthetic, social and political self-liberator who sought to save the world, and who exercised a lasting impact, she wrote of her mission in luscious, tedious, hyperventilating bulletins, many excerpted here. Ms. Dillon savors this legendary aspect of Duncan, but doesn't altogether master it. At times, she appears to kneel before and venerate her subject, inviting the dancer -- whom a less charitable writer she cites once called "a drunken, fat woman who for hours was rolling around like a pig" -- to burgeon into a claustrophobic state of sainthood. But in tracking down the details of Duncan's difficult childhood, Ms. Dillon does much better.

As with her book on Bowles, Dillon seeks to enter lives, not just survey them. She establishes herself as a firm narrative presence, the reader's constant companion. She also sets out to shadow, as much as possible, Cassatt and Duncan, clinging to their allied consciousnesses moment by moment. "After Egypt" is an "essay" in two senses of the word: a prose composition cast in a personal form, and an experimental venture into a new biographical realm.

Ms. McQuade is a writer living in New York.

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