Opening on International Women’s Day, Radium Dreams showcases a series of poems and artworks inspired by the remarkable life story of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie. A punchy collaboration between award-winning poet Sue Hubbard and acclaimed artist Eileen Cooper RA, this show illuminates the struggles and triumphs of one of the most brilliant women of modern times. Original and harmonious, Hubbard’s poems and Cooper’s drawings and collages conjure Curie’s life through closely observed moments of struggle, tenderness and joy. There is a sense of kinship through mutual struggle, dedication and, most of all, respect.
As the art world continues to address gender imbalance with a raft of all-female shows, such as the Whitechapel Gallery’s Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70, not many create a dialogue between pre- and post-feminist art. From an art history point of view, these gargantuan efforts matter (artists need to have an exhibition history), and yet with everything, everywhere, all at once, they can be difficult to process – hard to grasp. Not so with Radium Dreams at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. “It represents so much about our college: two brilliant women celebrating another brilliant woman,” says Dorothy Byrne, “and also it is a story about how women succeed because men and women help them.”
Radium Dreams highlights the power of creative support: between Marie Curie and her sister, between the scientist and her husband, and of course, between artist and muse. This resonates elegantly with the venue, which also houses The Women’s Art Collection, created by women in a Cambridge college dedicated to educating academically outstanding young women. Both Hubbard and Cooper have played a key role in the development of the Collection: as an art critic, Hubbard has regularly written about its development (recent additions include Tiffanie Delune, Annie Kevans and Nengi Omuku), while Cooper was one of the first artists to donate work and was made an Honorary Fellow of Murray Edwards in 2017.
In Radium Dreams, Hubbard jumps imaginatively beyond the lexicon of art history into the realm of science through the very human, often tragic life of this extraordinary woman. Meanwhile, Cooper enlists her distinctive, muscular style to deliver a more modest, domestic perspective on this towering, iconic figure. Born in Warsaw in 1867, Curie emigrated to Paris aged 24, following her elder sister Bronisława. Whilst earning her higher degrees, she married the French physicist Pierre Curie with whom she would jointly win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, for developing the theory of “radioactivity”. A term she also coined, Curie independently won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of the elements polonium and radium. Alongside these triumphs, she experienced the systematic and near catastrophic loss of those dearest to her – mother, sister, child and husband. In this, Radium Dreams charts a rare steadfastness but also acknowledges the support of those around her.
“This idea came after writing my novel Girl in White on the German expressionist painter Paula Modershohn-Becker and a series of poems on Gwen John. Art language had become too familiar, so I wanted to challenge myself by choosing to write about another discipline – such as science,” says Hubbard. “I am also really interested in these pre-feminist women, who had no structures of feminism but did it anyway. After reading the biography of Marie Curie, I knew it had to be her.” Marie Curie’s life is thus re-imagined through the lens of these searingly brilliant, second-wave feminists, who together move the dialogue forwards in unexpected ways.
Compared to Hubbard, Cooper is disarmingly shy but equally frank about the real challenges she faced in accepting this project. “I thought her suggestion rather terrifying, and it took me quite a long time to get my head around it,” she explained. “Women helping women and women’s identity has been a constant theme of mine… are you filming me?” Unfortunately, cut short by an insistently retiring nature, I would have to wait for the talk to hear her full account.
Whilst the crowd gathered, I noticed something I had never before seen at any show opening – ever. Virtually everyone was standing still, staring at the work and quietly reading the poems. Shown along the length of a single wall, paintings and poems hung together like a fabulous tapestry of interconnecting strands. Moving slowly towards the conclusion, the audience absorbed the essential, heart-wrenching details of Marie Curie’s life. Fittingly, Harriet Lofler’s curation and Sally Coleman’s design amplified the collaborative nature of Curie’s journey, one of resilience and dedication but also love. Radium Dreams is both a showcase of the benefits of creative collaboration and a joyous illustration of the huge potential between science and art.
“At Murray Edwards College, when we encounter difficult science, we grasp it,” said Byrne as she introduced Professor Val Gibson, head of the High Energy Physics Group at Cambridge, “…and I want you to know I understand exactly what she does!” Giving us an overview of Marie Curie’s brilliant and ongoing contribution to science, Gibson gave us a summary insight into the positive culture of learning at Cambridge, which embraces change and difficulty “let’s not turn away from it!”.
Cooper then got up to speak. “Radium Dreams is all about collaboration. I made four groups of work on and off over two years in response to Sue’s poems whilst trying to immerse myself in the life of Marie Curie. Quite a lot of them didn’t work, many abandoned, others reworked and transformed – which became collages – when I was stuck I would text or ring Sue and she would give me a few visual queues.” It was this voice “of clarity” that guided her, and suggested motifs “the ruby brooch, or the ladder… infinity what is that about?”
Whilst admitting that she struggled with the science, Hubbard’s poetry became the medium through which the artist grasped her subject, “when I did embrace the difficulty, that is when things really started to happen in my work – difficulty is also how art happens.” Whilst the collages and mid-sized drawings very closely relate to the poems, the three large works take Radium Dreams as their starting point, but then try to encapsulate what Murray Edwards College offers the students, “that is the magnificent experience of learning”. We see this manifest in the shimmering portrait that accompanies the poem Chair at the Sorbonne, Curie’s skin glowing with the mystery of matter.
While scientists at the time were investigating the latest exciting discovery – X-rays – Curie focused her energy on a different kind of ray given off by the element uranium. These “uranic rays,” discovered by French physicist Henri Becquerel just a year earlier, had the strange power to “ionise” the air around them, making it a better conductor of electricity. Marie was in a unique position to investigate these, as Pierre was a world expert on minute electrical currents, inventing instruments to measure them. Using these, Marie began her study of this new phenomenon, which led to the discovery of “radioactivity”. Marie Curie had overturned two of the bedrock principles of chemistry: that atoms are the smallest units of matter, and that one element cannot turn into another.
What better way to experience the flashpoint of this natural phenomenon than to be treated to a reading by Hubbard of what might be her stand-out poem, Uranic Rays. Building on the cool detachment we have come to expect from this poet (Swimming to Albania, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Ghost Station), Hubbard invests each work in this series with an emotional sharpness (‘… locate the entry point/ of shrapnel/ visible/ among the grainy shadows/ like a detonated star. ‘- Les Petites Curies) whilst avoiding the stereotype of florid language (‘…’ She wants to avoid/ unnecessary amputations,/ spare the scream of boys…’). Her writing is confident and highly observed but equally lyrical and intuitive. Like a portrait, she captures the peculiar psychology – the gritty determination – of Curie whilst also humanising her.
‘… she wants to discover the cause of this force,
which seems to violate Carnot’s law that energy can be transformed
(though like Time or God, never be created or destroyed).
At night, lying beside her sleeping Pierre, she dreams
of particle waves, an invisible necklace,
of opaline and illuminating her bleached skin.’
– Uranic Rays, Sue Hubbard
A testament to the ever-inquiring mind, thirsty for knowledge and new horizons, with Radium Dreams, both artist and poet remind us that a life committed to what is not yet seen, but intuited or felt is a life worth living. A stunning book has also been produced for this show, which I was fortunate to bring home. It now sits on my shelf, glowing with possibility, nudging me to work. As Marie Curie said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.”
Nico Kos Earle
RADIUM DREAMS Inside The Women’s Art Collection, Cambridge, a poetic collaboration illuminates the iconic figure of Marie Curie
March 2, 2023 – September 3, 2023
The Women’s Art Collection is Europe’s largest Collection of art by women. It includes 600 works by leading artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Paula Rego, Lubaina Himid, Faith Ringgold, Tracey Emin and Cindy Sherman. The Collection is displayed throughout Murray Edwards College, an iconic Brutalist building designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon as a manifesto for women’s education. They stage two exhibitions a year, alongside a dynamic programme of events.