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26 Jun 20

Modern Australian Women


In late 2018 – a year that has come to be associated with a renewed critical analysis of the expectations and challenges facing girls and women throughout the world, from the #metoo movement to the United Nations’ HeforShe campaign and beyond – a display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia offered a reminder that this discussion is a longstanding and still very pertinent one. The display showcased art created by women Australian artists from the early to mid-twentieth century, including Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, Ethel Carrick Fox, Clarice Beckett and Hilda Rix Nicholas. For NGV Magazine, Maria Quirk reflects on the inroads these artists made into introducing radical new ideas and movements to Australian art and reveals the strategic yet pragmatic approach they applied to their work, which set the scene for a century of transformation.

Modern Australian Women: Works from a Private Collection explores the lives and art of over fifty artists who worked in Australia and abroad between 1880 and the 1960s. Almost all of these women were professional working artists, often supporting themselves and their families via the sale of art through public exhibitions, commercial galleries and private commissions. The works on display provide insight into women’s professional and economic strategies, as well as their role in introducing Post-impressionist and modernist artistic theories into the Australian art landscape.

It was difficult for artists of either gender to make a living in Australia during the first half of the twentieth century, a time when two world wars and an economic depression deflated art prices and art by Australians was still undervalued. Faced with the additional challenges of gendered pricing practices and institutional biases, most women took a pragmatic approach to producing and selling art for the domestic market, working in genres and mediums that were popular with buyers, such as floral still life and travel landscapes.

Women were regarded as ‘naturally’ suited to flower painting, which was considered a minor genre. While this characterisation was reductionist, women like Violet McInnes and Alice Bale used women’s association with floral painting to their advantage. Small scale still lives were among the safest and most saleable works for women to produce. Small canvases and floral subjects suited the homes and tastes of middle-class buyers, and producing a large number of small canvases, priced modestly, was an effective means of generating a stable income. Unfortunately, their subject matter and focus on saleability meant flower painters were often not taken seriously by critics. Even though women were encouraged to pursue and excel at flower painting, artists who worked consistently in the genre faced derision for producing work seen as unoriginal and artistically undemanding.

Despite this charge, women artists were at the forefront of forays into Post-impressionism and modernism in Australia, and in the 1920s and 1930s some women used floral studies as a vehicle for radical artistic experimentation. Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith used everyday, ‘feminine’ objects like flowers and tableware to develop their modernist aesthetics, incorporating graphic, geometric and decorative elements into these traditionally domestic, ‘minor’ subjects.

Portraiture was the other staple of women artists’ commercial practice. Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Dora Wilson and Florence Rodway were prolific and popular portrait painters in the first decades of the twentieth century, working predominantly in pastel. Around 1910, Rodway accepted up to twenty portrait commissions a year, producing both large-scale and miniature likenesses for clients including Dame Nellie Melba and Henry Lawson. While portrait commissions from private clients provided a steady income, it left little time for personal artistic diversions. In 1916, Rodway noted that she had no time to work on an elaborate pastel composition because of her commitments to portrait clients. As is the case for many women, the necessity of making a living outweighed ambitious and risky experimentation.

The fact that women predominantly painted portraits of children and members of the middle class has also affected their inclusion and visibility in public art collections throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Despite advocating for the opportunity, women were unlikely to receive prestigious, public-facing portrait commissions for figures such as prime ministers. Much of their work remains in private collections, or has not traditionally been regarded as significant or relevant to public museums and collections. This exhibition offers audiences the opportunity to view works rarely seen on public display.

Women artists’ careers were often punctuated by periods of travel to the artistic capitals of Europe to pursue further study and professional opportunities. Women won nine of the triennially offered National Gallery School Travelling Scholarships between 1908 and 1932, and the Post-impressionistic style common to many women of this period owes much to their intrepid travels and embrace of the new, the cosmopolitan and the foreign at a time when there was limited access to art news and art reproductions in Australia.

In London, for example, Sydney artist Thea Proctor had the opportunity to view the highly influential Post-impressionist exhibition, organised in 1910 by Roger Fry. Although she recorded that the paintings were ‘rather a shock’, viewing the exhibition and its colours in person was a ‘thrilling experience’ which, along with her introduction to the unique aesthetic of the Ballets Russes, had a profound influence on her own style.

As well as facilitating access to new cultural influences, the very experience of inhabiting complex and cosmopolitan cities was liberating artistically and personally. International mobility, and the feelings of ‘otherness’ that accompanied living as an outsider in an urban, Continental environment, were key aspects of international modernism that women like Proctor, Ethel Spowers and Margaret Preston experienced and imbibed at this time. Australian women’s studios in Europe were spaces of burgeoning female modernity, where women’s interior lives, artistic development and personal independence blossomed.

Travel in Europe was also transformative for women who didn’t embrace modernism, like Bessie Davidson, Dora Meeson and Agnes Goodsir. In London and Paris, they had the opportunity to engage with new methods, subjects and contacts. Australian women achieved remarkable success in Europe; Davidson was awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government for her services to art, Goodsir was invited to join the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts and many others were hung ‘on the line’ at the Paris Salon and London’s Royal Academy. Unfortunately, recognition abroad did not always translate into respect and success at home, and many women artists of this period did not receive serious critical attention in Australia during their lifetimes. This exhibition showcases the outcomes of this crucial period in Australian art and the enduring influence of Australia’s ‘modern women’.

This was originally commissioned for and published in the Nov–Dec 2018 issue of NGV Magazine.

Dr. Maria Quirk is Assistant Curator, Collections and Research at NGV