Gothic chair

Annie Beal
Gothic chair
1907

Annie Beal was the daughter of prominent early Victorian Western District settlers, Amy and Charles Beal, and lived most of her life in Lorne, on the Great Ocean Road. Though there is no record of formal artistic training, she had some contact with woodcarver Robert Prenzel – his ledger records show that Beal purchased a set of specimen chests from him in 1928. Beal exhibited several carved items, including Gothic chair and Carved panel – plum branch, in the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work held at the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, in 1907. Gothic chair was awarded second place in the amateur class for the ‘Best Carved Single Specimen’.

From the mid nineteenth century, the Arts and Crafts Movement had prompted a widespread revival in traditional craft techniques. The return to handmaking was in part a response to the inescapable modern phenomena of urbanisation and industrialisation. Woodcarving, though widely practised, was an uncommon craft for women artists to undertake in this period; occupations such as needlework and watercolour painting were considered more genteel, in part because they were less physically strenuous. Beal’s Gothic chair was an unusually ambitious project, in both its scale, and the richness and diversity of its stylistic influences, including Art Nouveau, Chinoiserie, and of course, the Gothic.

By Dr Angela Hesson, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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An old bee farm

Clara Southern
An old bee farm
c.1900

Clara Southern was a prominent figure within Australia’s Impressionist school, also known as the Heidelberg school. Southern worked as a professional artist throughout her life, which was a rarity for a woman at the time, and was one of the first and only women to be admitted to Melbourne’s Buonarotti Society, where artists, writers and musicians would socialise and work. Sharing a studio with Jane Sutherland at the fashionable Grosvenor Chambers in Collins Street, which the two sublet from Tom Roberts, Southern would also give painting lessons and exhibit regularly at the Victorian Artists’ Society.

Southern had a preference for rural subjects: her beekeeper’s cottage in An old bee farm appears to be an abandoned farmhouse on the fringes of wild bushland, which seems intent on reclaiming its territory. In 1888 Australia celebrated the centenary of European settlement and in 1901 the Australian colonies, until then operating as self-governed entities, federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia. Art at this time was often tinged with a fin-de-siècle mood of contemplation and introspection. This pervades An old bee farm, with the winter moon rising and an evening mist descending on the scene.

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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The Pioneer

Frederick McCubbin
The pioneer
1904

Although Frederick McCubbin did not reveal a narrative behind his works, firsthand testimonies of early pioneers have survived, helping us to understand the challenges of life in nineteenth-century Australia. This creative response, based on historical accounts, considers the woman’s experience in McCubbin’s iconic painting.

Is this life as I had expected? The life promised? I was eager for a move. New scenery, a new way of life. Yet while our hardships in the colony continue, our toils persist. As my husband grows tired by manual labour, the necessity for me to provide, to dedicate myself to homemaking, grows stronger. I must ensure our survival. Keep us fed. Keep us clothed. The great distance from my kin, who once provided me comfort, causes me heartache, and my body feels the effects of two years on the land. There is seldom a child born who keeps its health through the blistering summer, and freezing winter. This is my greatest fear. Yet, although we appear victims of misfortune, today we are blessed with health. And we must take each day anew. In imagination I can picture a splendid city, towering over the hills. I am sure it will one day be reality. But will I be here to witness its growth?

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Friendly critics

Constance Jenkins
Friendly critics
1907

Constance Jenkins’s Friendly critics captures the moment a painting is revealed to its audience and an artist awaits judgement. The male artist is a common motif throughout art history, and our interpretation of the painting might be less expansive had Jenkins gendered her central character as male. The positioning of the painter as female, however, presents a more culturally pertinent layer of understanding.

Friendly critics addresses the issue of women and work, a contentious topic at the start of the twentieth century. Though women were seeking more independence, and speaking out about their inequalities, a woman practising as a full-time artist was uncommon. In Friendly critics, the contrast between the artist, casually crouched and holding the tools of her trade, and her elegantly dressed critics, reveals professional moment. The studio, ordinarily reserved for male artists, is her place of work; a space that brings together the artist and her audience.

Constance Jenkins (1883–1961) won the National Gallery of Victoria’s Travelling Scholarship for Friendly critics in 1907, the first time the award was won by a woman. Her award sparked a succession of nine women winning the award between 1908 and 1932.

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

19th Century Australian Art
Gallery 6, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Penelope

Tom Roberts
Penelope
1919

Frame: original, by Lillie Williamson

Melbourne-born frame maker Elizabeth (Lillie) Williamson was one of the most celebrated wood carvers in Britain in the early twentieth century. It is not known what led Williamson to frame making, but in this period, woodworking was a popular activity pursued by women. Williamson developed her skills well beyond those of a hobbyist and her unique frames sit in stark contrast to the mass-produced frames of the time.

This frame is the original setting for the painting Penelope by Williamson’s husband Tom Roberts. The pairing reflects their creative partnership, with Williamson producing several frames for paintings by Roberts over the years. Williamson married Roberts in 1896 after they had been friends for seventeen years. They moved to England, where Williamson won several awards for her carving and undertook commissions designing frames. Tom Roberts struggled to sell his pictures in England, so Williamson’s frames were a valuable source of income. Many of Williamson’s designs were influenced by historical frame styles. In this case, the frame reflects both seventeenth-century Dutch frames and Art Nouveau forms.

By Jessica Lehmann, Consevation Project Officer and Holly McGowan-Jackson, Senior Conservator of Frames and Furniture

20th Century Australian Art
Gallery 7, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Ruth Hollick

In her speech at the opening of Ruth Hollick’s first exhibition, Lady Eleanor Mary Latham, wife of then attorney-general Sir John Greig Latham, encouraged the audience to not only consider the works on show, but to think about the possibility of careers for women. She announced, ‘Everyone has a right to try and make a living for herself in any profession she likes to take up’.

In 1927, Hollick was the subject of an interview on career opportunities for women published in The Illustrated Tasmanian Mail. In her discussion of photography as an occupation Hollick declared: ‘I have always found the work well within a woman’s intellectual grasp, and not too hard a strain from the physical point of view. Although one does not, at this period of women’s freedom, talk of any particular work as being her sphere, there is no doubt but that feminine intuition with children may be particularly helpful … After all the big thing is to catch the real child – show him as he is – no wonderful massing of shadow, no illuminating light is worth a jot if it does not reveal the real Pat or Mollie’.

By Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography

20th Century Australian Art
Gallery 7, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Fragment 9

Margaret Worth
Fragment 9
1966

Margaret Worth’s contribution to the Australian colour field movement was, until recently, overlooked by art history. Worth began studies at the South Australian School of Art in 1962, where she was taught by Sydney Ball, whom she later married. The two often worked with a collaborative approach, and Worth’s Fragment 9 is closely related to Ball’s Persian series, in particular Ispahan, 1967, which was displayed in The Field. A landmark exhibition in Australian art, The Field opened the National Gallery of Victoria’s new premises on St Kilda Road in 1968, and was the first comprehensive display of colour field painting and abstract sculpture in Australia.

A notable omission from The Field was the work of women artists – only Janet Dawson, Wendy Paramor and Normana Wight were included. Although exhibition curator John Stringer stayed with Worth and Ball in Adelaide while he was selecting works, Stringer did not ask to look at Worth’s paintings, nor did she offer to show them to him. Worth stated that at the time she felt it was not usual for female artists to promote themselves. Ball and Worth moved to New York in 1969, where Worth studied under Sol LeWitt at the School of Visual Arts. In 1972, she received a master in fine art from Columbia University. Worth is now considered one of Australia’s most significant female colour field artists of the period.

By Beckett Rozentals, Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

20th Century Australian Art
Gallery 8, Level 2, NGV Australia
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House painting: Box Hill North (large version)

Jenny Watson
House painting: Box Hill North (large version)
1977

Jenny Watson started her art education at the National Gallery School in 1968. She escaped her suburban childhood home in Box Hill, a suburb on the outer edges of Victoria, and found herself immersed in Melbourne’s energetic, inner-city art and punk scene. In 1975 Watson travelled to the United States and Europe for the first time. Her encounters with conceptual art and the feminist art movement in New York were formative for her future practice: ‘I turned from the observation of the outside world to the recording of an inner space … I wanted to shatter the techniques I had learnt … to let a random uncontrollableness take hold of the work’.

Watson went on to develop the deliberately naive style of painting that is now her signature. Over the past four decades she has continuously interwoven autobiographical references and self-portraiture with poetic text fragments, portraits of horses, painted textiles and other collaged materials, bringing representations of real women, with a strong sense of self but also a little bit transgressive and messy, into the art-historical canon. She is unapologetically honest about her achievements: ‘One of the biggest strengths of my work is that it’s totally monastic and self-defined. I have always, and always will, make all the decisions’.

By Katharina Prugger, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art

20th–21st Century Australian Art
Gallery 11, Level 2, NGV Australia
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Wanjina

Lily Karadada
Wanjina
1990

Born circa 1927 to Woonambal parents in the Prince Regent River region of the Kimberley in north-west Australia, Lily Karadada was given the name Mindindil, meaning ‘bubbles’. Mindindil refers to a time before her birth when Karadada’s father noticed bubbles in a freshwater spring and recognised them as a sign of her forthcoming arrival. Karadada has gained significant acknowledgement for her depictions of Wanjina. Wanjina is the general name of spirit ancestors of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin and Woonambal peoples of the north-west and central Kimberley.

The Wanijna are powerful rainmaking spirits connected to the lightning and thunder of the wet season. They are found only in the Kimberley, and depictions of them are abundant throughout the cave paintings of the region. Karadada often places the Wanjina centrally in her compositions, surrounded by elements of nature and features of the landscape. Now, Karadada has lost much of her vision and no longer paints; her work has been acquired by numerous collections worldwide. The Karadada family are the longest continuing family of painters in Kalumburu and strong leaders of the Wanjina painting tradition.

By Hannah Presley, Curator, Indigenous Art

Marking Time: Indigenous Art from the NGV
Gallery 13, Level 3, NGV Australia
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Umma’s Tongue – molten at 6000°

Hannah Brontë
Umma’s Tongue – molten at 6000°
2017

‘Don’t make umma have to clap back.’ Through Mother Earth’s tongue, Hannah Brontë voices her warning. The word ‘umma’, or mother, repeated to the audience, is sung by a group of Indigenous female rappers, calling for a matriarchal leader in the resistance to an environmental dystopia. Images of mining, molten lava and rising sea levels become the backdrop for Brontë’s video, with pointed lyrics, such as ‘you’re all slithering for wealth’, seemingly directed at climate-policy makers. Individual and Country are often connected in Brontë’s work and bodily trauma is aligned with the mistreatment of the land.

Brontë is a Wakka Wakka / Yaegl woman from Brisbane, with a multidisciplinary practice that spans music, video, photography and textiles. She was raised by women who took on all parental roles. Brontë’s practice draws on these experiences and often centres on female empowerment. Connecting her love of hip-hop, rap and visual art, in 2016 Brontë created Fempress, a dance-party event that combines woman-led live music and DJ sets with video projections and art installations.

By Sophie Gerhard, Assistant Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

Marking Time: Indigenous Art from the NGV
Gallery 14, Level 3, NGV Australia
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Rings of Jupiter (3)

Inge King
Rings of Jupiter (3)
2006

Inge King worked as a sculptor for almost eighty years – a remarkable accomplishment by an equally remarkable woman. Arriving in Australia in 1951, she made a significant contribution to the history of Australian art until her passing in 2016 at the age of 100.

Born Ingeborg Neufeld in Berlin, King was introduced to sculpture by German figurative sculptor Hermann Nonnenmacher, with whom she spent eighteen months developing skills in clay modelling and woodcarving. It was time spent in the United States, where she witnessed developments in Abstract Expressionism through the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, that sculptural assemblage in steel aroused interest for the artist. In a conversation we had in 2013 she noted, ‘My time in the United States was wonderful. It gave me new freedom, it was as though ballast had fallen off me – a European ballast.’

By the 1970s King was known for her monumental public works. Rings of Jupiter (3), is from a series of cosmic-themed sculptures King began in 2004. These works combined the artist’s interests in assemblage with a new view of the organic and dynamic nature of the universe.

By David Hurlston, Senior Curator, Australian Painting, Sculpture and Decorative Arts to 1980

Not currently on display

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