Friday, February 11, 2005

An Introduction to Rosie Bonner

Rosie Bonner is a pseudonym I first used nearly 20 years ago, and as my first-ever post on my first-ever blog, I thought I would tell the story of its creation.

I was a senior in college. My best friend Nora, an art history major, was studying for her first exam of the semester in a course on 19th century painting. The course was taught by the pompous and self-satisfied Steven Z., a pedagogue well known for his devotion to the slide exam, requiring students to memorize titles, artists, and dates of dozens upon dozens of plates from the textbook. The night before the exam, I joined Nora in her dorm room to quiz her on all the pictures in the required chapters as preparation. By the time I got there, she pretty well had the titles and artists down, but still needed a lot of drill on the dates. We spent a sort of frivolous, even raucous, evening doing some plain rote memorization but also, when that failed, coming up with all kinds of ridiculous mnemonics to distinguish the 1828 pictures from the 1834 pictures (see, this one has 3 clouds and 4 sheep in it, so it has to be 1834! and so on). By the time I was on my way out her door, I knew the dates as well as she did. At that moment, it somehow seemed like a terrible waste for me to walk around with all of those sterling mnemonics in my head without using them. So we decided that I, too, would take the exam the next morning.

Nora and I realized that I would need a name to put on the exam, and decided after some discussion that we wanted to base it on the name of a female artist in her textbook. The thing is, this was a fairly conventional textbook of 19th century European painting, and there weren't a lot of female names to pick from. There was, however, Rosa Bonheur, her one picture in the volume being a meticulously rendered portrait of a small group of cattle. (We didn't, at the time, know anything about her, and would have been more delighted with our choice had we been aware of her colorful biographical details: short hair and man's dress, cigars, lesbian life partner, menagerie of exotic animals, hanging out at slaughterhouses to school herself in animal anatomy... Plus, she and I shared a birthday!) We anglicized the name to Rosie Bonner, and my alter-ego was born.

The academic honor code at our college was very strong (and, so far as I know, extremely well respected), and one of the conventions accompanying it was that the professor would leave the room during all exams. I lurked in the hall outside the classroom where the exam was to be given, trying to be inconspicuous, pretending to read posted notices, until I saw Steven Z. leave the room and turn the corner down the hall on his way to his office. I then slipped in to the classroom, picked up a blue book, and sat for the exam. Of course, I hadn't been to the classes, and I hadn't studied the titles and artists, so as the slides went by, I just made up stupid jokes for those (the only one I remember is Goya's assassinated revolutionary lying spread-eagled on his back in the dust--I called it "Naptime," by Fred Rogers). But I got every last one of the dates right, damn it. (Which is, of course, to say that Rosie Bonner did.)

Although I was taking a heavier-than-usual courseload that semester, Nora and I were so pleased with our little prank that I ended up taking two more exams (again, getting the dates meticulously right and putting goofs for painter and title) and pulling an all-nighter writing a paper (a reading of Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergeres as a depiction of the Virgin Mary, using Byzantine, medieval, and Renaissance iconographical conventions--fully intended as a joke, a parody, though by around 4 in the morning I actually had myself half-convinced).

Toward the end of the semester, we were delighted to hear from Claire, a recent alumna and art history major, that when she returned to campus to visit her old professors, she found Steven Z. in a controlled tizzy, comparing handwriting on Rosie Bonner's exams to previous art history exams and asking Claire whether she had any idea who it could be. (As it happened, I was pretty much unknown to my college's History of Art department, having taken only their intro course--my exposure to the ideas I used in my paper came largely during my junior year abroad, when I took mostly art history courses despite being a French major.) We ultimately unveiled Rosie Bonner at the Art History major's tea (these events were held by all departments for sophomores selecting majors), for which I dressed all in pink and gave a slide lecture based on my Manet paper.

Rosie Bonner has remained a faint ghost presence to me since then, a hint of a potential of a persona. I have occasionally used the name (once to reserve a table for tea at a downtown hotel for me and Nora), but have mostly kept it in reserve, as a sort of tacit promise to myself that I have it in me to be more frivolous, more colorful, more playful, less responsible than I have been under my own name.


Blogger elswhere said...

Rosie! So good to see ya again after all these years!

Don't think I ever knew about the Rosie Bonner all-nighter. Ah, our salad days, when we were full of pranks.

Will you be writing about the Alcohol Policy Party? I've been meaning to but I think you can do it justice.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Savtadotty said...

Welcome to the blogosphere. I hope you have lots of free'll soak it all up, but it's worth it.

When I saw the name Rosie Bonner, I though to myself, "She can't possibly mean Rosa Bonheur, can she? I know she's a nurse, not an art historian!" So much for labeling people.

12:44 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Angela asked me to post this:

Elswhere: Please ask Rosie to enable anonymous posts! I just don't feel clever enough to make up a blog name and I'm dying to post. Would you go on and post this for me at her first entry?:

Janssen! The textbook! Or Janson? Blue denim cover. F still has hers, I'm sure. I remember I took SZ's intro course pass-fail (partly for the pleasure of getting steamed up about his focus on dead white male artists) and then got like an A- anyway. Not, sadly, so wittily as you.


7:35 PM  
Blogger Udge said...

A very funny story, which goes to prove my favourite saying: A good generalist will beat an average specialist in her own field, any day. Welcome to blogging.

5:27 AM  
Blogger PPB said...

Hilarious. It could only be better if he'd tried to actually post the grades!!

6:50 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

I think that's the best first blog post I've read yet. Good-o.

2:29 AM  
Blogger bihari said...

So happy to see you in the blog world! We need more nurses/Art History spies/mamas/lit majors.

I'm so chagrined to think that I spent years memorizing dates for Art History exams (for some reason I took it all the time in college, despite being an English major) without ever realizing the potential for intrigue and excitement which lay therein. I have of course forgotten the dates for everything, but I still have this feeling when I look at paintings that geez, clever me, this rings a bell. Which useless and pretentious reaction I suppose is what a liberal arts education is all about (and why I, too, went on to nursing school post-college!).

10:14 AM  

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