U – Lick the watermelon (Rush job)

Seulgi Lee
U – Lick the watermelon (Rush job)
2014

Su-bak geot halk-ki, or, ‘to lick the skin of the watermelon’ is a Korean sok-dam (proverb) similar in meaning to the English expression ‘only scratching the surface’. As Seulgi Lee puts it, it can also refer to a ‘rush job’; that is, an action executed without due care.

Lee’s U series captures simplified representations of proverbs in abstract geometric form through the Korean quilting technique nubi. While the measured simplicity of the quilts illustrates the sophisticated visual aesthetic of traditional Korean art and design, it belies the punishing process of their production. Far from a ‘rush job’, nubi is notoriously labour-intensive, involving the joining of layers of fabric by hundreds of tightly stitched lines, spaced millimetres apart.

Conceptually, Lee’s works are also multi-layered. For centuries, textile production in Korea has been the purview of anonymous women. The neo-Confucian social structure of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) divided men and women – men occupied the ‘outer’ (public) sphere, and women the ‘inner’ (domestic) sphere. The practice of sewing and embroidery served as one of few outlets for women to express their artistic inclinations. Subverting this gendered history, Lee outsources the production of the quilts to male craftspeople from Tongyeong in South Korea.

By Annika Aitken, Assistant Curator, Asian Art

India, South & South-East Asia
Gallery 10, Level 1, NGV International
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Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara

Dosso Dossi and Battista Dossi (attributed to)
Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara
1519–30

A daughter of Italian papal royalty (high ranking in society), Lucrezia (1480–1519) is often historically considered either a victim of patriarchal scheming or a conniving seductress. Married three times for political advantage, Lucrezia’s story is awash with tales of poisoned husbands and incest. After the attempted and then successful assassination of her first and second husbands, allegedly at the request of her elder brother, rumours suggested the siblings had grown into lovers. Yet revision of her reputation positions her as neither pawn nor siren. Evidence suggests that when her father, the Pope, was absent from Rome, it was Lucrezia who led the papal court, making her a uniquely powerful woman for the late 1400s. Around 1501, when Lucrezia married her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara, the bulk of writing about her focused on the duchess’s piety, beauty and motherliness. Yet financial records suggest Lucrezia independently pursued a series of financial projects that led to the agricultural reinvigoration of Ferrara. This type of investment, of her own stipends and jewellery, to fund the reclamation of wetlands for agricultural use was unprecedented. Today we reflect on Lucrezia’s contribution and re-evaluate the historical dichotomies of her legacy.

By Billie Phillips, Project Officer, Audience Engagement and Learning

Britain & Europe, 15th–17th Century
Gallery 14, Level 1, NGV International
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Portrait of a Lady

Mary Beale
Portrait of a Lady
c.1680

One of the difficulties in researching historical women artists is the lack of available records. Women artists’ personal papers are less likely to be collected in libraries and archives, making it harder to document their careers. This is not the case for Mary Beale, one of England’s first professional woman painters. While Beale pursued her professional role as portrait artist, her husband, Charles, managed her studio and kept meticulous records of her paintings and sales. This makes it much easier for curators and scholars to reattribute works to Beale and study the full scope of her impressive practice. Mary Beale will never enter the ranks of ‘anonymous’ women artists through history. Beale was the family’s primary earner and supported her husband and two sons with prolific commissions – at the peak of her career in the mid 1670s she completed more than eighty portraits in one year. Beale also took on female students and studio assistants and published an authoritative book on painting – the first known book on art to be written by a woman.

Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

Britain & Europe, 16th–18th Century
Gallery 24, Level 2, NGV International
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Mary Lucas

Adriaen Hanneman
Mary Lucas
1636

Mary Lucas lived and died in tumultuous political times. She was born into a noble family in 1600, just three years before Elizabeth I, the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty, died, and England and Scotland were united under a Stuart dynasty. Lucas and her family were royalists. They supported King Charles I in his war against Parliamentarians, a group of politicians and soldiers who wanted to abolish absolute monarchy. This portrait was painted before the English Civil War between Royalist and Parliamentarians broke out in 1642. In her memoirs, Lucas’s sister, the poet, philosopher and natural scientist Margaret Cavendish, describes the closeness between Lucas and her other siblings, who met daily to lunch together at their mother’s country or London home. In summer the sisters walked through Hyde Park and took supper on barges along the River Thames; in winter they attended plays and took coach rides. Then, war broke out. Two of Lucas’s brothers were killed in the war, while her husband acted as a messenger for the king. Mary died in 1647, before the war ended. According to family legend, her tomb was broken into and desecrated by Parliamentarian rebels.

Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

Britain & Europe, 16th–18th Century
Gallery 24, Level 2, NGV International
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Anastasia Ivanovna, Countess of Hesse-Homburg, Princess Trubetskaya

Alexander Roslin
Anastasia Ivanovna, Countess of Hesse-Homburg, Princess Trubetskaya
1757

Anastasia Trubetskaya was a Russian princess at a time of great cultural change in the Russian aristocracy. She lived through the rule of Tsar Peter the Great, a moderniser who bought cultural and social reforms to Russia. Peter wanted Russians to dress and behave more like Western Europeans. Nobles like Trubetskaya were encouraged to learn French and German and dress in Western fashions, which had been restricted in the previous century. Men shaved their long beards and wore breeches and waistcoats instead of traditional Russian robes. Upper-class women like Trubetskaya switched from sarafans – long, pinafore dresses worn since the 1300s – and traditional Kokoshnik head coverings to tight-waisted dresses with wide skirts and petticoats, like the one worn in this portrait. Peter’s reforms extended from fashion to diplomacy and philosophy, and Enlightenment values of secularism and humanism began to take hold among elites.

Trubetskaya was at the vanguard of these changes. As a high-ranking member of the imperial family, she entertained foreign monarchs and was lady-in-waiting to the flamboyant Empress Elizabeth. After her second marriage she lived in Germany, a centre of progressive, Enlightenment thinking. The books, maps and globe surrounding Anastasia in this posthumous portrait represent her love of literature, learning, languages and travel.

Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

Britain & Europe, 16th–18th Century
Gallery 20, Level 2, NGV International
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Louise-Marie de France

François-Hubert Drouais
Louise-Marie de France
1763

From history books to Sofia Coppola films, the princesses of Versailles have always excited the imagination and are often envisioned as pastel-coloured chess pieces in marriage negotiations. The young Princess Louise is described in diaries from relatives as such; a haughty child with a taste for luxury and indulgence. Yet, after leaving the palace in her early teens to spend several years at a convent outside Paris, Louise returned more interested in religion than marriage. This resolve seems to have hardened in the 1760s with the concurrent deaths of her brother, sister-in-law and mother whose wealth and position, it seemed, did little to protect them. In 1770, telling no-one but her father, Louise left court to become a nun. Any influence she lacked as the youngest princess who, gossip insisted, was indigent and impatient she recouped in the church. Louise was often consulted by her father, royal officials, princes and ambassadors for spiritual and political guidance, garnering influence usually denied young women. So great was her contribution that after her death she was only one miracle shy of being formally ‘blessed’, making Louise, black robes, habit and confidence, one of the most influential princesses of Versailles.

By Billie Phillips, Project Officer, Audience Engagement and Learning

Britain & Europe, 16th–18th Century
Gallery 20, Level 2, NGV International
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Anne Charlotte of Lorraine, Mademoiselle de Brionne, as Diana

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Anne Charlotte of Lorraine, Mademoiselle de Brionne, as Diana
c. 1775

Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun made people look beautiful. A woman painter working in an industry dominated by men, Vigée Le Brun achieved unprecedented success because her paintings reflected the modernising world around her. Her portraits of royalty and nobility were naturalistic, capturing the authentic and specific personality of the individual in a way that broke with convention. Some of her (male) critics labelled her work frivolous and in bad taste. But Vigée Le Brun knew what her clients wanted: to look naturally, effortlessly glamourous.

Art historian Anne Higonnet likens Vigée Le Brun to ‘a super-intuitive stylist that will make you look perfect for Instagram’. Vigée Le Brun was a favourite painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who personally intervened to ensure Vigée Le Brun’s acceptance into Paris’s prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Vigée Le Brun fled France during the Revolution and spent the rest of her career travelling throughout Europe, balancing her successful career with raising her daughter, Julie, single-handedly.

Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

Britain & Europe, 16th–18th Century
Gallery 20, Level 2, NGV International
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Untitled

Lynda Benglis
Untitled
1967

The first time I saw an artwork by Lynda Benglis, I almost stood on it. I was walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, after being prompted by a security guard to step back, I looked down to realise I was just centimetres from Benglis’s Modern Art, 1970–74 – two bronze masses that seem to capture a fluid substance in motion. My initial reading of Modern Art as something so unexpected that you almost trip over it demonstrates how Benglis pushes the limits of her working materials.

Benglis invents methods of making, creating works that exist somewhere between painting and sculpture. In these works, Benglis has applied layer upon layer of heated beeswax to narrow pieces of wooden board. Untitled, 1967, is almost impossibly smooth, with beeswax (mixed with pigment and resin) painted on either side of a central point blended to create a spectrum of blues and pinks. Untitled, 1971, has a less cosmetic finish. Many of these beeswax paintings-cum-sculptures naturally mutated as they cooled, and, as Benglis described, ‘they began to rumple. And then as they began to rumple I became interested in the formations that occurred’.

By Meg Slater, Assistant Curator, International Exhibition Projects

International Collection, 19th–20th Century
Gallery 15C, Level 2, NGV International
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Queen Esther

Edwin Long
Queen Esther
1878

A steely stare jolts you, mid-step. Dark, hooded eyes pierce under an emerald green jewel rooted in resolution. Two women frame her, one ready to veil her form, as history has framed and shrouded many stories. What lies behind those tightly clasped hands is a tale of an adopted Jewish woman, a minority in ancient Persepolis. As the King’s second wife, Esther concealed her identity to survive. Learning of official Hamam’s planned decree to kill all Jews, she pleads for the safety of her people to the King. Esther’s tale is immortalised and celebrated in the Jewish holiday Purim.

In 1906, this was voted one of the most popular paintings in the NGV Collection, though not for its depiction of a feminist icon. Esther’s determination to enact change within the power structures of the time help us to understand the contributions of many women in history who dared to challenge class, religion, race and gender. As there are many layers within a painting, there are also many more to be uncovered when we learn about women in history.

By Jessica Lehmann, Conservation Project Officer

International Collection, 19th–20th Century
Gallery 16C, Level 2, NGV International
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Horses bathing in the sea

Lucy Kemp-Welch
Horses bathing in the sea
1900

Growing up on the south coast of England in the 1870s, Lucy Kemp-Welch used horses as an escape from her father’s recurrent tuberculosis and the structure and discipline of her middle-class, Victorian upbringing. An expert rider and talented draughtswoman, Kemp-Welch was obsessed with how ponies moved. As a teenager, she asked for a week of horse physiology lessons as a birthday present. A couple of years later, she received her first commission: a horse’s head, in oils.

Kemp-Welch’s breakout work, Colt hunting in the New Forest, was a three-metre-long epic, capturing the energy and exhilaration of the wild ponies she had loved as a child. When exhibited in 1897, the painting caused a sensation and was purchased ‘for the nation’. She followed this success with Horses bathing in the sea, a complex composition including nine horses and five men exercising in the frothy, breaking waves of the English Channel. Kemp-Welch painted the work over several weeks standing on the Dorset sandbanks, watching a group of military horses in their daily exercises. Today, Kemp-Welch is best remembered for her illustrations of the 1915 edition of Black Beauty, which capture her own deep love and respect for horses and the independence, hope, duty and freedom they represented in her life.

Dr Maria Quirk, Assistant Curator, Collections and Research

International Collection, 19th–20th Century
Gallery 16B, Level 2, NGV International
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Josephine signing the act of her divorce

E. M. Ward
Josephine signing the act of her divorce
1853

The woman signing her divorce papers here is Marie-Josèphe-Rose, or Josephine, first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. The couple met after Josephine endured imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, which saw those perceived as disloyal to the revolution incarcerated, her first husband’s arrest and consequent execution. Recognised for her strength of will, Josephine, whose influence grew quickly, soon became an object of public admiration and gossip. Spending a significant portion of their marriage apart, the couple exchanged letters that depicted a turbulent and occasionally bitter love. Yet, Napoleon’s ego, ambitions and taste for extramarital relationships were reportedly matched by Josephine, whose own explicit writings, affairs and charisma were comparable to those of her husband. When no heir came, the couple, likely as a matter of state, divorced in a public signing befitting of their celebrity. Readings of the relationship characterise it as either a great love story or a relationship that leaned toward abuse. Living alone until her death, Josephine was never able to shrug off her reputation as an adulteress and failed empress. The sadness depicted here was unlikely to have been unique to Josephine – it is worth considering why we cannot imagine the heartbroken face of Napoleon on the same day.

By Billie Phillips, Project Office, Audience Engagement and Learning

International Collection, 19th–20th Century
Gallery 16B, Level 2, NGV International
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