The exhibition Australian Women Artists, One Hundred Years: 1840-1940 can be seen simply as a survey show incorporating some of the best work by Australian women artists within the chronological period covered by the exhibition. But it is also an attempt to ascertain collectively and historically the contribution made by the women artists of this country to Australian art history and, beyond that, it affords an opportunity to examine the possibility that there exists in the work of some of the artists represented a quite different range of response to their environment from that of their male counterparts.
Survey shows, by definition, exclude far more than they incorporate. Of course, the channels of choice open to the selector choosing work should remain flexible and responsive to each artist’s stylistic and aesthetic concerns; but the channels of choice must also be modulated by the over-riding demands of the exhibition as a working whole. Each painting or print is finally dependent on the other in making a coherent statement and achieving maximum impact.
Hence the selection process operative in this exhibition neither sought to represent all aspects of an artist’s work, nor set out to restate the obvious emerging from any artist’s oeuvre. For example, Vida Lahey’s Monday Morning and A. M. E. Bale’s Interior are larger and more ambitious works than any other I have seen by either artist. The output of both is characterised, in the main, by floral still lives; though many of these studies rise above the level of the merely competent, they are no preparation for the surprisingly fine work displayed in this show.
However, the range of choice available was often circumscribed by the little attention hitherto given many of these women. This means that while a proportion of the more prominent painters — such as Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor and Grace Crowley — are represented by a substantial body of work, enabling us to trace certain preoccupations and developments in their art, other careers, such as those of Jane Price, Clara Southern, Jane Sutherland, Mildred Lovett and Nancy Guest, are virtually closed to us. Not only do we lack a sizeable number of works by these artists from which we could assess the standard or scope of their art, but the paucity of biographical documentation makes their lives and personalities even more fugitive.
lt is this kind of lacuna which makes the attempt to a certain both collectively, and historically the contribution made by the women artists of this country to Australian art history so imperative. That is the crux of the exhibition. It was it initial impetus, and remains the continuing dynamic.
The criticism which finds such a raison d’etre either invalid or inexplicable necessarily derives from a conservative and politically naive premise. Axiomatic to this type of criticism is the assertion that women, as a group, have not been the victims of sustained oppression and discrimination: it follows that any attempt to revalue or re-establish the status of women artist, either individually or collectively, is both incomprehensible and unnecessary.
To see Australian Women Artists in purely stylistic and chronological terms is to miss the point completely. For the aim of the exhibition is to present an extensive range of the art by women in this country, to posit its standard and importance; to put the work of some thirty-nine artists together and to a see their achievement as a collective contribution. But its aim is not only to rediscover the past: the exhibition seeks to make it known, and to draw its strands together in such a way that they may help to shape the future. Indeed one of the most heartening comments passed came from a woman painter who said that she wished such an exhibition had been mounted when she began her professional career ten or fifteen years ago, for it gave her an encouraging sense of continuity with the women artists of the past, a place in a viable tradition. In this one, very important way, Australian Women Artists is self-referential.
The period between the First and Second World Wars in particular was a fruitful one for women artists, for it throws into relief their place in Australian art history while many of the works painted during this period highlight the notion of a female sensibility, a point to be developed shortly.
We know that the combined talents of the women artists during the year formed a powerful front for the reception of modern art in this country, and the names of Norah Simpson, Grace Cossington Smith, Margaret Preston, Crace Crowley and Thea Proctor are now identified with the rise of modernism in Australia. Bernard Smith, in his Australian Painting, regards the dearth of male painters following the First World War as the reason for the ascendancy of the women artists. Whatever else may be said of it, this view carries the logical entailment that there could be in each generation an extremely talented group of female artists who, if given a certain level of opportunity, are likely to prove equal, if not superior to, their male counterparts. The ‘twenties and ‘thirties were two decades particularly favourable to the advancement of the status of women in this society, and though it is unlikely that the feminist-suffragette movement in England had any direct impact on the women artists, it did initiate a somewhat higher consciousness of the status of women.
An indication of this is William Moore’s two-volume The Story of Australian Art, published in 1934. Moore finds no reason to account, as Smith does, for the congregation of talented women artists in these years for he rarely discusses an area, problem, period or section of Australian art history without remarking on the achievement of women artists as well as that of men. Indeed, if it were not for this democratic record of the artistic endeavour of both sexes, information on many artists would have been lost to posterity.
The notion of a ‘feminine sensibility’ operative in this exhibition is the most interesting and challenging area of discussion: the term has long been anathema to most artists, critics, historians and curators. It has been understood to imply all that is decorative, superficial, indecisive in short, inferior, and not to be taken seriously. But the question remains: to what degree can certain paintings be read as iconological symbols that is, as conveyors of unconsciously or semi-consciously held attitudes or ideas and, beyond that, as conveyors of unequivocally feminine world views?
The ‘iconography’ of what may be termed feminine sensibility finds its chief expression in the domestic situation with its bedrooms, kitchens, living-rooms, mirrors and windows, flowers and kitchen utensils. The orientation of women towards domesticity probably explains the interest many women artists show in painting their immediate environment. In this way, the world of the woman artist is often a private one, a world closed in on itself. It is as though women have for so long been house-bound, for so long controlled by biological determinants and denied access to wide-ranging pursuits in a male-dominated society, that they have made their art from what is closest to them — the home. And thus in the work of the women represented in this exhibition, men rarely appear. Two paintings, A. M. E. Bale’s Fire in the Backyard and Clarice Beckett’s October Morning, are the only ones which use men as sole subjects. Yet there is a curious distance apparent in both works. The man tending a fire in the verdant atmosphere of the yard has his back squarely to us, while the figure on the path in October Morning is ambiguously placed, his gesture mysteriously arrested, his form indistinct, all of which conspire to make for a disquieting mood in the painting. It is interesting that in a major work in the corpus of a prolific artist such as Beckett, her rendering of a male subject should have been so insubstantial and, at the same time, so menacing. Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston, the best painters of their generation in Australian painting, use the domestic situation as substantial vehicles for innovation in their art.
Grace Cossington Smith, in her early interior studies, makes intimate appraisals of her sisters engaged in a variety of quiet occupations, reading novels, sewing, knitting and patiently posing for the young painter. The interior, in these years, forms a kind of backdrop to the activities of the family circle. In her later period, the rooms themselves are sufficiently saturated with their own, private radiant being to do without the presence of humans to give them life — and these works are the highpoint of her career.
In other works in the exhibition, such as Ethel Carrick Fox’s Interior and Edith Holmes’ Lace Curtain, the outside world is seen briefly, fleetingly, as a curtain drift back across an open window. This allows us a tantalising glimpse of distant vista while the cool, dim inner world of the room acts as a further barrier to participation in the external world. Grace Cossington Smith’s glowing, late interiors in works such as Door into the Garden and Interior with Blue Painting, offer temptingly open doors whose thresholds will never be crossed. It is a though the challenge of the Australian landscape in whose pictorial history women had little more than marginal development is without, and the women, their lives and their art, within. In Cossington Smith’s Interior with Wardrobe Mirror, contact with the outside world is further minimised by its reflection in a mirror reality made vicarious.
The flower studies which dominate the art of Margaret Preston in oil, woodcut, linocut and mono type, the chunky fuchsias, sinuous Native Pear and glowing Sturt Pea are immediately alive and direct despite stylistic modification: Preston catches the essence or character of her flowers in such a total and unique fashion that her rendering forever dictates one’s response to them. Many women artists have attempted to use flowerpainting as virtually the sole vehicle for their art, but none so successfully; A. M. E. Bale and Vida Lahey, after the initial achievement of Interior and Monday Morning respectively, shrank from the challenge of their art, and eventually their talented and receptive sensibilities were blunted by repetitive output concerning the same narrow range of subject matter floral still life.
Margaret Preston, on the other hand, maintained a wider range. In 1927, the year she painted Banksias, she produced some of her finest work: these include Implement Blue and Still Life, 1927, which, like Cossington Smith’s Things on an Iron Tray on the Floor, focus on kitchen utensils a their subjects. Indeed, Preston refers to her preoccupation with these modernistic, mechanistic still lives in her autobiographical essay:
All around her in the simple domestic life is machinery — patent ice chests that need no ice, machinery does ; irons heated by invisible heat ; washing machines; electric sweepers and so on. They all surround her and influence her mind and, as her work, she has produced ‘Still Life, 1927’ and ‘Banksia’.
I do not think that there are traits discernible in any work by a woman artist that would identify her as such, nor do I think it mandatory that this should be the case. Rather, it is important to ask how the woman artist’s sense of the creative self as a woman plays a part in the formulation of pictorial imagery, and to examine the kind of imagery which has recurred in certain works within the chronological range of the exhibition. We should not be afraid to discuss art by the sex of the artist who produced it, merely because a term such as ‘female art’ or ‘feminine sensibility’ has negative implications in this society. As Anne Tucker has written:
The fact of someone’s sex does not necessarily dictate attitude but to ignore the fact of someone’s sex in evaluating a work of art may by oversight rob a work of its richness. Sexual prejudices and preferences are an important factor in the way any viewer responds to the work of art, especially if the work concerns something sexual ; but too often the role of these preferences is overlooked and ultimate decision of value may be assumed to be of a more objective nature.
This attitude is a particularly relevant once when discussing the nude in the work of male or female artists. In the oeuvre of most of the women artists between 1840 and 1940, apart from the usual life study sketches, there are few works which concentrate on the female nude. However, two artists represented in this exhibition devoted a substantial section of the output to the nude: Janet Cumbrae Stewart and Thea Proctor.
Thea Proctor, one of Sydney’s most influential tastemakers during the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, conceived the female body in an early work, The Bathers, as being devoid of the usual voluptuous curves and ample palpitating flesh that would recommend such a body to the pantheon of the traditional female nude. The central figure of this water-colour, for all the timeless arcadian bliss of her setting, has, in fact, a very contemporary body. The cropped hair and flat-bellied, small-breasted frame of this woman recalls the flappers of the 1920s, those voguishly skinny girl-women who characterised the style of a decade. The cool, sensuous elegance Proctor can convey when representing women is adequately shown in her two prints in Australian Women Artists, Summer and Women with Fans. Their bodies are languid, relaxed to the point where they must lean against a hammock or one another for support. In her latest work in the exhibition, Reclining Nude, the body is now redolent with an abandoned sensuality. The translucent nature of the medium delights in depicting soft, pink flesh and the disarray of the boudoir. Proctor’s fine, controlled draughtsmanship celebrates the luminous flesh, breasts, buttocks and thighs of her model with a joyful sensuous intimacy. Proctor evades the vulgarity which Bernard Hall imparts to his similarly posed nudes; for while both are in sexually vulnerable or enticing positions, Proctor’s appear to be in control of their own sensuality, and are therefore unavailable to the demands of a specifically male appetite.
Cumbrae Stewart’s nudes, on the other hand, are directly influenced by Bernard Hall: she was his student at the National Gallery School between 1903 and 1909. Her pastels are a curious mixture of coy, girlish innocence and the covert, insipid eroticism which brands many academic nude studies. It is as though Cumbrae Stewart has taken on a stereotype of the female nude and has attempted to rework it within the framework of her own feminine sensibility. When this sensibility wins out and the imagery is not frontal, as in The Idler, the result is graceful, moving and sensuously appealing. To find an adequate vehicle for expressing female sexuality, however, Cumbrae Stewart looked no further than the traditional imagery of the nude as it had been taught her. If she occasionally invested these stale images with an arresting and intimate understanding of the physicality of her models, more often than not these subjects are little more than pin-ups, the Playmates of 1919.
‘Australian Women Artists, One Hundred Years: 1840 – 1940’ must inevitably, raise many questions about the women artists of this country. I think it is an inherent part of the nature of this exhibition that these questions be problematic ones and difficult to deal with, let alone answer: but it is crucial that such an attempt be made.
Janine Burke is an Australian author, art historian, curator, biographer and novelist.
Image credit: A bowl of flowers, watercolour by Vida Lahey, 1934