Reviewed: Modernism and Feminism: Australian Women Artists 1900-1940, by Helen Topliss (Craftsman House, 1996).
Australian women modernists of the generation who made their mark in the 1920s have become heroic figures for contemporary feminists. Often referred to as a ‘phenomenon’, they seemed to spring from nowhere to dominate the vanguard of Australian art in the 1920s and early thirties. Glamorous as the women pilots of the same period, their reign was just as brief. The women who pioneered modernism in Australia did not well survive the twin shocks of the Depression and the Second World War, when they were displaced by a new generation of angry young men. Angst-ridden explorations of myth, sexuality and social problems eclipsed the women’s gay, seemingly apolitical art until the feminist revival of the seventies.
What was the cause of this feminine blip in the otherwise seamlessly masculine story of the development of modernism? Was it the annihilation of the ‘best and brightest’ of Australia’s young men in the First World War, or the result of ‘first-wave’ feminism? Was it a unique phenomenon in Australia, or did women elsewhere temporarily monopolize the avant-garde, only to be written out of the histories at a later date? Other questions persist about the quality of the contribution Australia’s women artists made to modernism. Did they hold back the development of modernism in this country by playing it safe in the early years? Were their pots, pictures and prints really only a parochial version of modernism, hardly worthy of the name? Or did they introduce key elements of European modernism, such as cubism and primitivism, to Australia, only to have their contribution denigrated and ignored because they were women?
Ideological positions are quickly flushed by these controversial questions, which Helen Topliss revisits in her book. Topliss makes her own position unequivocally clear in the title. Feminism is both the inspiration for and the object of her study. Modernism and Feminism refers to the central historical connections between modernism, women artists and first-wave feminism, but also to the contemporary, ‘second-wave’ feminist theories which influence this book. Without feminism there would probably be no single-sex study of women artists. Topliss, though, is no polemicist: her argumentation is cautious, her book meticulously researched and amply documented. If it does not exhaust the topic, it nevertheless goes a long way towards mapping out some useful and different ways of viewing the position and contribution of Australian women modernists.
Topliss’s explicitly feminist contribution to the debates about Australian women modernists is timely and appropriate. Feminism has had everything to do with Australian art historians’ (and the art market’s) rediscovery of this period. Despite the fact that several recent books and theses have been written on women artists, few have attempted the more ambitious project of producing broad feminist interpretative frameworks for understanding their role.
Janine Burke’s 1975 survey exhibition of Australian women artists (at the George Paton Gallery at the University of Melbourne) showed the way, and was followed by a book in 1980. We then waited almost a decade for another comprehensive account to appear—Mary Eagle’s Australian Modern Painting Between-the-Wars (Bay Books, 1990). Eagle chose not to develop her earlier arguments about gender and modernism; rather pointedly (or so it seemed at the time) she put an ugly picture by a little-known West-Australian male modernist, Harald Vike, on the cover, as if to counter all the fuss being made about women modernists. Work on Australian modernism as a gendered phenomenon stayed largely within the academy until Jeanette Hoorn’s anthology Strange Women: Essays in Art and Gender (MUP, 1994) brought some of it to light. Topliss’s book, therefore, has the distinction of being the first full-length study of Australian women modernists able to draw on current feminist art-historical scholarship, which has matured and developed substantially since the seventies.
Topliss is more inclined to take the ‘masculinist’ art historians Humphrey McQueen and Bernard Smith to task for their treatment of women modernists than she is to acknowledge fellow feminist Australian scholars in the field. This is ironic in an account that emphasizes a female lineage for modernism and the networks of support that existed among women artists. Taking issue with McQueen and Smith, as others have done, is probably still necessary. Nevertheless, it has the effect of reinforcing their status as authorities, while the feminist arguments of Burke, Caroline Ambrus, Hoorn and others, which either complement or pre-empt Topliss’s own, are given short shrift or ignored altogether. It is a minor but irritating point that Topliss portrays Burke as discounting the influence of feminism on Australian modernism by quoting from her 1975 catalogue rather than her 1980 book. This was not simply a reprint, but a substantial revision of Burke’s earlier arguments. By 1980 Burke was saying something else altogether.
Modernism and Feminism is selective in other ways. An increasingly common complaint is that the book’s title suggests a scope that is broader than it really is. Although subtitled Australian Women Artists 1900-1940, it deals only with a handful of artists who ‘were in close touch with one another’ and ‘formed a coherent artistic network’. They are Dorrit Black, Grace Crowley, Anne Dangar, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Gladys Reynell, Ethel Spowers and Eveline Syme.
The selection is intended to be representative in several ways. It addresses regionalism (in this period, anything outside of Sydney): three each hail from Adelaide and Sydney and two from Melbourne. It makes a welcome effort to go beyond painting, underlining the point that the modernists typically worked in several media, both fine art and commercial. Painters, potters (Reynell, Dangar) and printmakers (Syme, Spowers) are here, but not photographers like Olive Cotton. It is a pleasure to find Reynell and Dangar, who worked in a relatively unfashionable craft medium, so sympathetically and centrally treated.
The selection also deliberately pays special attention to those who travelled and studied overseas, especially to the role of neglected female expatriates such as Dangar, who spent her last twenty-one years as a devoted disciple of the cubist Albert Gleizes in the mountains of France. Some might be disappointed that popular favourites like Grace Cossington Smith and Hilda Rix Nicholas (another important expatriate who spent years in France) are largely absent. Others might regret not being enlightened about the army of lesser-knowns. I wondered whether we really needed a whole chapter devoted to the already very well documented Margaret Preston, whose status as the pre-eminent woman modernist is reinforced in the book.
However, the aim of the book is to establish a ‘model for contextualizing both minor and major modernists of the period’, not to inform us about the whole range and variety of women modernists—welcome as that objective would be. Topliss goes about this by adopting some classic feminist lines of inquiry and testing them against her representative artists. One is the idea that a female genealogy for modernism existed which was separate and different from the dominant strands of male modernism. This feminine modernism developed via the reinvigoration of areas traditionally associated with women such as colour, design and decoration in the arts and crafts, and in the general modernist shift to the exploration of ‘minor’ genres such as still life. Topliss suggests that if we trace this lineage the Australian women modernists begin to look less exceptional. She notes that they were not so different from their British counterparts, who were apparently also at the forefront of the arts and crafts movement and post-impressionism. It would have been useful to flesh out this brief comparison, since, to my knowledge, this point has not been demonstrated conclusively elsewhere.
Another argument often put forward by feminists to explain the sudden blossoming of Australian women modernists between the wars is the influence of first-wave feminism. In developing this, Topliss is at pains to refute the ‘phenomenon’ concept. If women artists flourished after the hiatus of the First World War, it was not because they were filling the vacuum left by all the talented men who had died (as Smith argued), but because women were in a position to reap the benefits sown by nineteenth-century feminism. These benefits came principally in the form of professional education and unchaperoned travel. Preston, Reynell and the others were a generation of privileged young women artists who were able to study where they liked, in contrast to their amateur Victorian foremothers.
Art study in England, Germany and, especially, France, was for the new generation less of a finishing school than a means to realize cherished professional ambitions. Those who took the trip were convinced that no serious modern artist could go forward without it. In Sydney in 1926, Thea Proctor was telling students ‘I have never seen any idea of design in the work of an Australian artist who has not studied abroad.’ She knew that the most advanced thing students would find in Australian art schools was the principles of late nineteenth-century impressionism, while abroad they would probably find themselves struggling with the lessons of Cézanne. Grace Crowley wrote fervently to Sydney art students from André Lhote’s classes in Mirmande in 1928, ‘if you don’t travel you make your job of “Artist” very difficult’.
Topliss is not writing about direct political feminist involvement on the part of women modernists, but a kind of feminism by osmosis. The actual political allegiances of the artists, in their lives and work, are not explored. This may give the misleading impression that women modernists held progressive views on feminism and other matters. Others have demonstrated that this was not the case. One of the most daring post-impressionists in Australia during the war, Grace Cossington Smith, was a right-wing patriot whose painting of striking workers (Strike, c. 1917, Newcastle Art Gallery) was likely to have been a protest against mob rule. By contrast, Dora Meeson, who did narrative and landscape paintings in a traditional academic style into the 1920s, had been an active suffragist in London in the 1900s. Topliss’s account also omits discussion of overt feminist content in women artists’ images, for instance, of the intellectual ‘New Woman’, whose lit cigarette dangling from her fingers was meant to signify racy modernity.
Instead, Topliss explores a more subtle range of feminist activity. To my mind, the major contribution of the book is its teasing out of the solidarity that existed among women artists. This goes beyond Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston’s public agitation, in their articles and committee work, for the advancement of women artists. In the words of the old slogan, the personal is political.
At first I wondered why the flowery Preston still life of a table set for tea had been chosen for the cover of the book over her magnificent Implement Blue, which treats the same theme using the severe modernist angles and shadows of the new photography. After reading the book I understood that the two cover images—Preston’s Thea Proctor’s Tea Party and Dorrit Black’s Still Life with Jug and Ladle—tell a story about a productive, dynamic interchange of work and ideas among female artists who were both colleagues and friends. Preston’s image gains in grace and depth when read as a homage to the style and distinctive pink-and-magenta colour schemes favoured by her friend and champion. Proctor. The decorative china, the flower arrangement and the gracious, bourgeois, feminine ritual of afternoon tea are insinuated into the quintessential modernist ‘laboratory’ of the still life table, to produce a peculiarly feminine artistic statement.
Similarly, Black’s austere arrangement features a ceramic jug by her expatriate friend Anne Dangar. Black, with deliberate thoughtfulness, sets this exotic import against an Australian gumleaf design. Through such international networks of female friendship, Topliss persuasively argues, modernist artistic developments were gradually introduced to Australia, exchanged and nurtured. I found this a refreshing antidote to the tales about those boysy Heidelberg artists’ camps in the 1880s and 1890s, and the depressing evidence of the exclusion of women from bohemia that are their flip side. Topliss seems to say, if you want to look, you will find that women’s networks were there too. These networks are emphasized somewhat at the expense of examining the issues of patronage and the artists’ vexed relationship with the critics, but the point is still well worth making.
Modernism and Feminism had its genesis in a PhD. While it is fashionable for reviewers to denigrate a book of academic origins (how else are people meant to find the time and resources to write well-researched histories such as this one?), it must be said that dull chapter titles like ‘The Institutional and Social Context for Art in Australia’ give the game away. This is a worthy rather than enjoyable read. The author’s scholarly restraint is sometimes in marked contrast to the exuberance of the artists themselves; I wished for rather more of their voices when they bubbled up in the text. The compensation must be that this is a work of the most thorough scholarship. Topliss has combed through a wide range of sources: the artists’ papers, her own interviews with their surviving relatives, and obscure magazines, such as the Catholic Press, Register, Undergrowth and Graphic to find new quotes. She successfully avoids rehashing old ground, which may explain some of the gaps I’ve mentioned. The reproductions also make the book a worthwhile purchase. This is a large, glossy, coffee-table book with over one hundred illustrations, half of them in colour. It’s a pity that the high production values didn’t extend to checking notes and captions as thoroughly as the text, however. For example, a picture by Margaret Preston is credited in its caption to the Ballarat rather than the Bendigo Art Gallery.
Despite its limitations, Modernism and Feminism makes a valuable contribution to scholarship on inter-war modernism in Australia, no mean feat in what is already a crowded field. It is bound to become a useful reference, especially for its careful exposition of key feminist themes in relation to women and modernism, and for its reappraisal of Australian women artists’ experience studying overseas. It will be interesting to see how it compares with Drusilla Modjeska’s forthcoming book on Australian women modernists, a foretaste of which we have already had in her wonderful semi-fictional book The Orchard.