Way back in February this year we visited the Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now exhibition at the NGA. Including works owned by the NGA and on loan from others across Australia the exhibition claimed to be the most comprehensive presentation of art by women assembled in this country to date … challenging stereotypes and highlighting the stories and achievements of women artists. It was described as part of a series of ongoing gender equity initiatives by the Gallery to increase the representation of all women in its artistic program, collection development and organisational structures.
The overwhelming impression on me was how wonderful the art was and how shameful was the contemporary treatment of the women who created it. Most works had been donated by the artist or the artists family indicating they had not been purchased for the sorts of sums paid to their male contemporaries. No money and no recognition. It must have been so debilitating for these artists but they continued to create and produce great work. Here are some examples – only a tiny part of what was an extensive exhibition – and mostly terrible photos!
We bought the Know My Name publication accompanying the exhibition which is something more than a catalogue. It’s enormous – over 450 pages – profiling the work of more than 150 Australian women artists and aiming to shift art historical assumptions.
We also bought Odd Roads To Be Walking, another book highlighting the work of 156 women artists (foreword by Dr Catriona Moore). It’s also enormous, with a great cover illustration; Une Australienne 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas which is included in the exhibition.
Both of these books include great reproductions and are very informative about the lives of the artists. All my quotes are taken from one or other of these or from the notes accompanying the works on display.
On entering the visitor was confronted by a large white wall full of mostly paintings but also some photographs and small sculptures. They were hung close together – thanks to the NGV Triennial I now know this is called, in gallery circles, a salon hang.
Quite a few were familiar, for instance the Nora Heysen, Joy Hester and Margaret Preston below.
Fortunately there were accompanying maps / legends to help identify those artists with whom one was unfamiliar. Needed because there were plenty of those. So many works, two such maps were required. This is the one accompanying the first photo above.
And this is the one for the second photo – except for 31 and 32 which are in the first. This first room was a good illustration of the many works that have been created by women artists unfairly excluded from Australia’s known artistic canon.
Grace Crowley started her career studying at Julian Ashton’s art school. She’s described as painting mostly landscapes and pastoral scenes in a traditional ‘academic’ manner at this time but following a visit to France in the nineteen twenties – with reluctant financial support from her family – a sophisticated practitioner of cubism and modernism generally. As seen in these two paintings. On the left; Woman (Annunciation), on the right; Portrait both painted in 1939.
Grace Crowley played a central role in introducing modernism to Sydney. By her fifties she was at a high point in her artistic life; having made her own way to abstraction … her carefully orchestrated arrangements of colours and forms are uniquely her own. Here is Abstract painting 1947
These were out of step with the prevailing direction in Australia’s art and largely ignored by the art establishment. Even though she taught the first course in Australia on abstract art in 1947 and was recognised as an abstract artist worthy of note internationally. This is her Abstract painting 1952.
Grace Cossington Smith is now one of the better known Australian women artists although it’s difficult to reconcile her current status as one of Australia’s greatest ever artists with the antipathy shown towards her work during her lifetime.
Her iconic piece, The sock knitter, 1915 is now widely considered to be Australia’s first post-impressionist painting but when it was shown in Sydney it was ignored and returned unsold to Grace’s studio, where it remained for over forty years.
Worse was to follow as critical reviews of her work became increasingly disparaging. She was finally recognised in the nineteen sixties thanks to a young curator from the NSW Art Gallery, Daniel Thomas, who visiting her home found it stuffed with paintings. He organised a retrospective of her work and she became famous at 81 years of age! Her modernist credentials are evidenced by such things as the minimalist nature of her compositions, her clearly outlined shapes and her vibrant use of colour. As seen here in The Lacquer Room 1935-36
Ethel Carrick or Ethel Carrick Fox (the name she went by during her lifetime) is a bit of an outlier. The Catalogue contains quotes from both the Sydney Sun in 1913 and the Melbourne Herald in 1921 acknowledging her status as a distinguished woman artist. A painting of hers sold in 2008 for over a million dollars. However despite avowing that marriage to the Australian artist Emanuel Phillips Fox has never made any difference to my work, after he died and from her middle age onwards her primary focus was to protect and promote her husband’s reputation and legacy. This plus the fact her work was dispersed in Australia, England, France and elsewhere meant her reputation declined. In her later years she lived in Melbourne, dying when she was 80 in 1952 at the Lyceum Club! She is now recognised at least the equal of her husband as well as being more adventurous and versatile. She loved painting people; Crowds are to me what a magnet is to a needle. I love the color, life, movement and individuality of the crowd. Here is her painting of such a crowd; The market 1919
This is another painting on the salon hung wall. I knew of Stella Bowen from other of her paintings, in particular Bomber Crew, 1944 which is in the Australian War Memorial; she was made an offical war artist during the Second World War. I didn’t know that she was the partner of Ford Madox Ford and mixed with the literary and artistic crowd around Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Palo Picasso. Born in Adelaide she lived in England and France from 1914 onwards, dying in England in 1947. This Self portrait 1929 is very austere, probably because it was painted three years after she left Ford and was confronting life as a single mother. She was influenced by Italian religious paintings, having visited Italy with Dorothy and Ezra Pound in 1923.
One thing that comes through about the lives of these artists is how they helped each other. Stella started off studying at a private art school run by Rose McPherson (aka Margaret Preston). Also how committed they are to their calling and intrepid. Stella sailed to England when she was 21. Unlike the three above she didn’t have much money. I like this one by her, Reclining nude 1927.
Another artist with a wealthy background and who was inter-connected to other women artists was Dorrit Black who I had not heard of although she had a huge impact on the development of modern art in Australia. From Adelaide she studied at the Julian Ashton school with Thea Proctor, travelled in Europe with amongst others Grace Crowley and in 1931 set up the Modern Art Centre in Sydney, an important platform for both Crowley and Grace Cossington Smith. She ended up back in Adelaide where she was highly influential as a teacher at eh SA School of Arts and Crafts where amongst others she taught Jeffrey Smart. She died in a car accident in 1951 and there was a retrospective of her work in 1952 but then her work received little attention. The SA art gallery held another retrospective in 1975 and since then her work has come back into focus. This painting, The bridge 1930 is one of the first paintings she completed after returning from Europe and shines as a testament to all she had learnt from the masters of modernism. It is widely recognised as Australia’s first cubist landscape. I love both the colours and the angles. It is indeed a radical image of Sydney Harbour, even now.
Elise Blumann was born in Germany but with her husband and children left during the rise of Nazism in 1934, finally ending up in Perth WA in 1938 when Elise was 40. She responded to the intensity of light in WA by infusing a more dramatic use of colour into her paintings. This one, Summer nude 1939 shown at her first solo exhibition in Perth in 1944 caused consternation among some local worthies. You can’t tell from the photo but it’s a very large painting – nearly life-size and quite exuberant. The artist described the reaction of a prudish gallery visitor fleeing the place when she saw it.
Mary Webb was born in London but worked in both Sydney and London in the 1940s. She then worked in Paris but maintained close contacts with Australian artists including Grace Crowley. This painting, Joie de vivre 1958, is an excursion into’ informal’ abstraction and with its arresting sense of movement, pastel hues, and soft-edged cloud-like forms is a singular contribution to Australian abstraction. It was discovered after four decades storage in Paris and bought by the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011. I love the colour and the sense of movement.
The exhibition was not confined to just paintings. This vase by Klytie Pate, High diving 1950 embodies the elegant and highly refined aesthetic of Art Deco which was a touchstone for the artist. She was a student during the Depression at Melbourne Technical College and part of the art pottery movement in Victoria from the nineteen forties. Hand-modelled, symmetrically applied figures embellish an otherwise streamlined for, and the glossy, highly hued glaze gives the work a luxurious finish concomitant with the guiding tenets of French Art Deco design. Beautiful.
Moving on to contemporary artists included in the exhibition I liked this work by Canberra artist Rosalie Gascoigne, Monaro 1989. Her work is deeply connected with the natural world. This is synthetic polymer paint on soft drink crates on plywood. The artist seeks to evoke(s) the vast stretch and shimmer of land near Canberra, east of the Snowy Mountains, with its clear air, rolling hills and grassland enlivened by wind. I think it perfectly captures that landscape. It’s a huge painting.
Melinda Harper was born in Darwin but has worked in Melbourne since the nineteen eighties; a challenging time to pursue abstraction. Untitled 2001 is a large oil painting that would have been simpler if painted in acrylic but Harper’s paintings are grounded in slowness, waiting and thinking. She considers carefully the degree of diversity of colour and shape the composition can sustain and makes it larger than expected to ensure these ‘mural-like’ paintings are experienced as intense and involving visual fields, not as objects. She’s influenced amongst others, by Lee Krasner.
These abstract paintings were grouped together. The one at the top is Heeney’s rose 1976 by Janet Dawson, born in Sydney, studied and worked in Melbourne. She was one of only three women included in a significant exhibition of abstraction at the NGV in 1968. I like it a lot – it has an Art Deco feel to it. She has moved away from abstraction, winning the Archibald Prize in 1973 (third woman to do so) with a portrait of her husband, the foody whose newsletter I used to get, Michael Boddy. The next one down is by Margaret Worth, Sukhāvati number 5, where pairings of complementary colours create illusions of depth and movement. I love the vibrancy of the colours chosen and the sinuous lines; described as waves of energy (that) galvanise the work. The title refers to the meaning of the work which is one in a series begun in 1966 when she was a student; the ribbons of light that, flowing from the male / female Kuan Yin, connect the pied world of human affairs with the Sukhāvati or “pure land of ultimate bliss”. Bottom right is Aurora 1970 by Miriam Stannage of Perth. Here bands of colour mimic the natural phenomenon of an aurora – well in an abstract way! Stripped of both the colours and the shapes of a natural aurora. I liked each of these paintings, and how they were presented which was quite striking.
Including the fourth one , bottom left. By English born but Perth resident, Carol Rudyard, Northern theme 1973. This painting was conceived in response to the landscape of the Kimberly region … (and) … evokes the expansiveness of its environment through the rich fields of colour that appear limitless. Beautiful colour.
This next beautiful work is Seven Sisters 2011 by Kunmanara Kawiny, Pitjantjatjara people. Having seen the highly regarded and exceptional Songlines: Tracking The Seven Sisters Exhibition in Canberra in 2018, see this post, I’m familiar with the story and the many representations of it subjects. This is one of many very beautiful depictions of the sisters.
And here is another representation, Seven Sisters 2012 by Tjunkara Ken, Pitjantjatjara people. I’m not sure whether these works were included in that 2018 exhibition; they’re not included in my blog. They both looked familiar – maybe because I’ve seen them at the NGA.
This is canyon 1997 by Judy Watson, Waanyi people. Her country is in north-west Queensland and her community is known as ‘running water people’. The movement of water is a recurring theme in her art. She says: The carrying of water, the bubbling of springs is almost like a cyclical metaphor within my work. This huge painting – hard to photograph – is inspired by a trip she took to Bell’s Gorge north of Sydney. Very evocative.
My final picture from the exhibition is Gija Country by Queenie McKenzie Gija people, Western Australia. The artist is a Gija Elder and cultural leader for the Kimberly region. Her ochre paintings capture the shapes, colours and history of her home in Texas Downs and later in her life at Warmun (Turkey Creek).
The exhibition was terrific, and obviously these photos represent only a fraction of the work on display. It also made you reflect on the outrageous treatment most of these women suffered during their lives. The lack of acknowledgement of their talent strikes us now as beyond comprehension. Many (although not all) of the women celebrated here were privileged in terms of class and resources although most faced family disapproval and they were less likely than the general population to marry and have children. But all the most obvious challenge to all of them was their lack of acceptance and acknowledgement by their peers and by the public; their work was often derided by the art establishment and found little favour with the viewing and buying public. Yet these women persevered. They persisted!
Still much remains to be done. Only 25% of works in the National Gallery of Australia’s Australian art collection are by women. The Know My Name Initiative aims to deliver a vibrant intergenerational program of exhibitions, displays, commissions, acquisitions, creative collaborations, publications and partnerships with some of Australia’s leading women artists.
Let’s hope it does so!