Intrepid Women

February 16, 2018
Bessie Davidson, 'Le robe jaune' (1931)

It’s an historical fact that women have almost always outnumbered men at Australian art schools but accounted for only a small proportion of works acquired for public collections. The times have been a-changing for the past few decades, with no gallery overtly discriminating against female artists, but there is still a debt to be paid to the past.

Intrepid Women at the S.H.Ervin Gallery is the latest installment in this ongoing work of restitution. It features the work of 30 Australian female artists who made their way to Paris during the first half of the 20th century, to find a life denied them back home.

Margaret Preston is probably the most celebrated of these pilgrims, but she has been in so many exhibitions lately that she is represented here by only two works, including an unusual woodcut, Translation from Picasso (1933), which may be more formally daring than anything she ever attempted in her own right.

Margaret Preston, 'A Translation from Picasso' (1933)

Margaret Preston, ‘A Translation from Picasso’ (1933)

This survey is sweeping but far from comprehensive. Some of the artists, notably Margaret Olley, Ethel Carrick, Dorrit Black and Grace Crowley, are better known than others, but I doubt that anyone is represented by their best work. This makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions as to the relative merits of these artists. Were they unjustly neglected? Perhaps. Are there any undiscovered geniuses in this group? Not on the evidence of this selection.

Intrepid Women is one of those intriguing exhibitions that brings a set of unfamiliar names into the limelight but leaves us feeling that something is missing. It’s like reading a novel and discovering pages have been torn out. Apparently there is a new book about Australian women artists in Paris on the way. Had it been available for the exhibition it might have provided a lot of useful detail.

Whenever I think of Australia in the 1930s, I remember Ian Fairweather’s letter of 1934, where he complains of the “colossal monotony” of Melbourne. It was a time when the art establishment was so secure in its narrow ways that a figure such as J.S.MacDonald, who served as state gallery director in both Sydney and Melbourne, could argue that art had to be protected from the women and the “pansies”.

MacDonald and his peers seemed to believe that alongside heroic landscapists such as Hans Heysen or Arthur Streeton women artists were no more than hobbyists and dilettantes. It was not an encouraging environment in which to explore the influence of the École de Paris. Much better to go and do it in Paris.

In the years before World War II it was generally expected that when a woman got married she would abandon any pretence of a career and become a mother and home-maker. Before labour-saving devices became standard this was a time-consuming proposition. A large percentage of those women who perservered as artists were unmarried, childless, and often lesbians.

Evelyn Chapman, 'Ruined Church in Villers Bretonneux' (c.1920)

Evelyn Chapman, ‘Ruined Church in Villers Bretonneux’ (c.1920)

In those instances when an artist did marry, it was usually to the detriment of her work. The promising Evelyn Chapman (1888-1961) got hitched in 1925 and gave up painting. Judging by the freshness of her studies of the ruins of Villiers-Bretonneaux, painted in a Post-Impressionist idiom, this was a loss to Australian art.

For those of Sapphic inclinations Paris was a more sympathetic place than anywhere in Australia. For Agnes Goodsir (1864-1939) it was the only place to be. The exception was Janet Cumbrae-Stewart (1883-1960), arguably this country’s most exquisite maker of pastels, who had considerable success in Paris and London, but would spend the last 20 years of her life back in Melbourne, with her longterm partner, Billy.

Bessie Davidson (1879-1965) originally travelled to Paris in company with Margaret Preston (then known as Rose McPherson), but would form a life-long attachment to the city. When Australians were fleeing Europe upon the outbreak of World War One, Davidson took the opposite course and returned to Paris. She would settle into the French art scene and enjoy a successful career. It’s only in recent times that her paintings have found a ready market in her homeland.

Bessie Davidson, 'Portrait of Mademoiselle De Roy' (early 1920s)

Bessie Davidson, ‘Portrait of Mademoiselle De Roy’ (early 1920s)

She comes across as one of the most accomplished artists in the show, flirting with many different Post-Impressionist nuances. Her Portrait of Mademoiselle Le Roy (c.1920) the woman who would be her patron and partner, is a simple, sincere piece of painting. La robe jaune (1931) is a bright, confident figure study that doesn’t fuss over details. By the late 1930s she was painting Neige Chateau d’Oex-Suisse, an ambitious Alpine landscape that uses staccato touches of the brush to give a patchwork effect.

Most of the artists in this show never attained this level of freedom and assurance. Some didn’t advance beyond the tourist phase, overwhelmed by the picturesque nature of a city where charming views were so plentiful. Others devoted themselves to a rigorous course of study, in the same conscientious manner as male counterparts such as Emanuel Phillips Fox.

The most overt case of conscientiousness belongs to Marie Tuck (1866-1947), who spent ten years saving up for her trip to Paris, finally arriving in 1906, at the age of 40. Her large genre painting, The Gossips (1910), already looked antiquated in those years of early Modernist ferment, but it must have seemed wildly ambitious to an artist whose formative years had ticked by in Adelaide and Perth. A more avant-garde approach was a luxury Tuck obviously felt she could not afford.

Marie Tuck, 'The Gossps' (c.1910)

Marie Tuck, ‘The Gossps’ (c.1910)

In their innate conservatism Australia’s female expatriate artists stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts. Even those such as Davidson and Goodsir, who had comfortable careers in Paris, tended to stick to a modern equivalent of le juste milieu – a style that stayed true to observation while venturing minor experiments with colour and paint application.

Artists such as Dorrit Black, Anne Dangar and Grace Crowley felt the dangerous allure of Cubism, but studied at the feet of pedagogues such as André Lhote and Albert Gleizes, who turned the movement into an academic discipline. Picasso and Braque had moved on long before, leaving their disciples to accuse them of treason.

This conservative approach is so typical of Australian art during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that we’d be foolish to pretend our artists were ground-breakers and world-beaters. The women in this show were far more intrepid in their private lives than in their artistic endeavours. Regardless of what they actually painted, in each and every instance, we can feel their excitement at being far from Australia’s shores, in the glittering capital of world art.

Intrepid Women:
Australian Women Artists in Paris 1900-1950
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 6 January – 25 March, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February, 2018