Modern Scottish Women / Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

7 November 2015 – 26 June 2016

Modern Two -Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone
Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980). Anne Finlay, 1920. Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 100.5. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections: Purchased with the assistance of the National Fund for Acquisitions 1983.

“…there is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only two kinds of artist-bad and good.” Ethel Walker, 1938.

I headed to Edinburgh recently to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition and to attend a study day organised by the Scottish Society of Art Historians (SSAH), examining the lives and work of artists included in the show and exploring some of the issues raised by this ground breaking exhibition.

I began with the show itself and found many brilliant, inspiring examples of self-possessed creativity: women whose paintings, drawings and sculptures resoundingly announced their undeniable status as professional artists in their own right. Out of an original shortlist of over 200 artists, this survey of 45 female painters and sculptors (1885-1965) with Scottish connections curated by Alice Strang, is an exciting expose of largely unknown work. Framed in terms of developments in Art Education (primarily in Glasgow and Edinburgh) and the impact of gender on how female artists were trained, perceived and received by the art establishment as mediators of taste for the general public, this is a challenging show in its continuing relevance. Often named as symbolically and politically subordinate to husbands or male relatives, gender has relegated many of these artists to obscurity, with acquisition of their work largely in the private domain and contemporary writing about their work often patronising or derogatory. Commentary from male critics, such as the criticism of Joan Eardley’s male Sleeping Nude (1955, Oil on canvas), dismissed as the work of a “girl artist” and an affront to the Western figurative tradition, is treatment that we sadly cannot just relegate to history. In an era of Twitter, where uninformed populist opinion is king, women being taken seriously in any profession remains a lifelong struggle.

All too often “women’s” work is written about in terms of its aesthetic appeal –adjectives like “charming”, “pretty”, or the surprise of accomplishment accompanies so-called critiques of female artist’s work. This trend persists in the media today in the discussion of female contemporary artists defined by good or bad girl status, their  sexuality, capacity for child bearing/ childlessness or the appraisal of their physical appeal and dress, rather like the limited reportage on female politicians over and above what they actually stand for. Female creativity has had to overcome significant obstacles to even begin to be seen on the same playing field as male colleagues of the same generation. It was interesting to hear the shocked amazement of visitors, discovering some of the historical obstacles to female creativity found in the battleground of the life class; an essential foundation for the practice of painting or sculpture which was deemed unsuitable for ladies or the marriage bar that prevented married women from taking up or keeping fulltime teaching positions. There is always a danger when we narrow the historical lens, of thinking ourselves to be so much more progressive than previous generations. Hierarchies of gender, culture, genre and region still prevent female artists from being shown and acknowledged more widely, even in more recent times.

Compare art writing and media coverage of the nationally celebrated GSA New Glasgow Boys of the 1980’s: Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and Steven Campbell with commentary on Joyce W Cairns, one of the finest living artists in the UK today, whose large scale figurative compositions surpass them all. Major solo exhibitions held outside the central belt at the Aberdeen Art Gallery such as Joyce W. Cairns War Tourist (2006) and Frances Walker: Place Observed in Solitude (2010) are contemporary examples of artists defined by the strength of their work, rather than their gender, which is why a second and even third exhibition of Modern Scottish Women is an imperative in terms of Scotland’s capital art institutions. As part of the SSAH study day, Matthew Jarron’s talk “Placed Under no disqualification”- Women Artists in She-Town, highlighted the work of women artists championed through art education, industry and politics in Dundee, revealing alternative histories of Art outside recognised centres of cultural gravity. This “first major exhibition of work by women artists to be mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland” is an important first step in recognising the contribution of women to Visual Culture, their rightful place in Art History and in the popular imagination. Perhaps it is my impatience for equality speaking when I say that in some ways the exhibition scratches the surface with a pin, but it is also immensely valuable in generating the impetus and momentum for further study and deeper consideration of this work, based on individual merit and the equality between ideas and technique.

Although I found the contextual framing of this exhibition problematic, I must also acknowledge it as a necessity: after all, to appreciate the qualities of anything you first have to know it exists, or in the case of Art be given the opportunity to see/experience it first-hand. I am sure that the general public and art historians alike will find works in this exhibition revelatory on many different levels. That a segregated show highlighting the achievements of women artist’s remains necessary in 2015/16 filled me initially with sad resignation- is this really the only means we have of shedding light on this work- to frame it in the inequality that it grew in spite of? But as I moved through the exhibition, new voices made themselves known and the framing of the show in relation to dominant institutions seemed less important that the fact that here they were- finally being discovered. Acknowledged in a National Gallery space, these works declared themselves in their own language, revealing strength, boundless talent and human insight.

Margaret Campbell Macpherson (1860-1931) was one of a number of female artists who in the latter 19th century moved to Paris for a more progressive art education at the Académie Colarossi. Working in relative freedom en plein air in the Fountainbleu Forest and in Brittany, the artist’s palette and paint handling evolved in response to the natural environment and as part of the Concarneau artist colony. Head of a Breton Girl (c 1894. Oil on canvas) is an arresting work, rather more profound emotionally and symbolically than suggested by a contemporary critic in 1895 who praised the “admirable tint” and “sweet simplicity” of the face.  The 2015 catalogue entry describing the sunlit scene and the girl in costume, “lost in idle contemplation” misses the mark for me as well. What struck me immediately was the conscious presence of both the artist and sitter. The girl, on the cusp of adulthood completely inhabits her own thoughts, her eyes linked to the deep blue palette of foliage and to Nature. Her white cap, accented with cool tones of blue and green seems caught in winds of change, through the dappled sunlight. She holds a staff which points inwards towards her abdomen, accents of striped cadmium red in her skirt flowing downward into the foreground of the painting. In her left eye is the watery mark of a tear and she stares fixedly downwards, perhaps in contemplation of burgeoning maturity. This doesn’t strike me as an idle girl with a sweet face, but something more consciously heightened by Margaret Campbell Macpherson’s palette and composition; a sense of illumination- in light used not in the service of impressionistic prettiness or optical distraction, but to say something; about feminine experience, adolescence and the sadness that always accompanies the loss of one stage of life in exchange for growth in another. It is a painting as strong and as subtle as its cobalt and emerald shadows, conscious of Nature and demanding to be written about officially in less decorative terms.

Sleeping Mother and Child (1903-05. Bronze) by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams (1877-1934) reveals the gaunt, high cheek boned figure of woman and her baby emerging from a hewn block of raw material and biblical association. The woman’s hands are clasped before her, around the child in a protectively unconscious state and the child’s mouth turns downward in an expression of uncertainty and consternation rather than peaceful, contented sleep. This exhausted and impoverished Parisian Madonna, a sitter who the artist paid with food and shelter, feels akin to the work of Käthe Kollewitz (1867-1945), although without the gravitas of human brutality and war. It is the protective bond of motherhood that the artist explores here and the recognition of one human being by another, tangibly in three dimensions. It is a work of great sensitivity, vulnerability, intimacy and one of the most emotionally affecting works in the show. Studying at the Liverpool School of Architecture and Applied Art and in Paris 1901-05, including the Académie Colarossi, the artist’s modelling of the figure in this and her painted plaster macquette for the Paisley War Memorial: The Spirit of the Crusaders (c 1922), was no doubt influenced by a progressive education and her scholarship abroad. The subject of a wonderful talk by Phyllida Shaw, who is bringing William’s work to light after discovering her extensive wartime correspondence, there is much more to be discovered about this remarkable sculptor.

Self-portrait (Mrs Grahame Johstone), c.1929

Doris Zinkeisen Self -Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone), c 1929, Oil on canvas, 107.2 x 86.6. National Portrait Gallery, London: Purchased 1999.

Another trailblazing artist represented in the show is Doris Zinkeisen (1897-1991) who’s Self Portrait (Mrs Grahame Johnstone) (c1929, Oil on canvas) is one of several resiliently present statements of femininity and power in the genre of portraiture, characteristic of this exhibition. Trained at the Harrow School of Art and the RA School in London, Zinkeisen’s work as a theatrical and film designer finds expression in her dramatic image of Self. Draped in a Chinese shawl, her pale white shoulders, red lips and rouged cheeks take on a symbolic rather than a seductive stance. The artist’s gaze extends above and beyond the viewer, her hand on a white curtain, about to step into the dark space beyond the set. Like Dorothy Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay (1920), the contentious poster image for the show, it is an image that resists feminine display for a predominantly male gaze. Zinkeisen is resoundingly sure of herself in beholding who she is- her sexuality is part of that certainly, but it isn’t the only aspect being acknowledged by the image.  In Johnstone’s portrait of Anne Finlay, the sitter meets the artist’s gaze as an equal, finding expression for the strength and dynamism of her personality, beheld and captured by another woman/ artist.

Belsen April 1945, 1945

Doris Zinkeisen Belsen: April 1945: 1945. Oil on canvas, 62.2 x 69.8cm. IWM (Imperial War Museums): War Artists Advisory Committee commission 1947 .

Although much admired in the press as a well-groomed socialite and model of femininity, Doris Zinkeisen’s tenacity extends well beyond her self-portrait to documenting the horrors of World War II. Tasked with documenting the St John Ambulance Brigade’s work in war torn Europe and therefore slipping under the radar of official war Art, Zinkeisen was one of the first to enter the Belsen concentration camp with the ambulance service post liberation. In her painting Belsen. April 1945 (Oil on canvas) she depicts a suspended, otherworldly, hellish space; blackened by death and smoke, with the glimmer of a furnace and unnatural clouds compressed into the high left of the composition. The splayed limbs of ghostly pale, emaciated bodies piled up in the centre of the painting align with the feeling in the floored pit of the viewer’s stomach – the foreground tonally falling away as if the ground beneath the viewer’s feet is collapsing. Zinkeisen’s direct response as a witness is an important, emotionally centred document of inhumanity and humanity perceiving it. Everything else including the gender of the artist is stripped away the scene before her, (and before us) heightened in shadow and universal in meaning.

Another memorable discovery was Margot Sandeman’s (1922-2009) painting 3 Bathers, one of the most beautiful and richly contemplative in the exhibition. From left to right we see three stages of life; childhood/ innocence, adulthood/ knowledge gained, and old age/death aligned with cycles of Nature. Sandeman’s symbolic treatment of her subject is reminiscent of Munch and Redon, with a dappled progression of luminous colour underpinned by a timeless progression of ages. In the figure of the child the torso is illuminated in sunlit yellow and orange, the head of the girl contrasted in cool blue, becoming one with the sky. The middle bather is in a crouched position, her face hidden sorrowfully in a towel and in the final section of the triptych-like composition we see the body of a woman, lain in a grave of deep ultramarine. Sandeman’s palette links the girl with natural cycles of life, death, decay and renewal with dominant blue defining the realm of her intellect and the flowing spring at her feet. The child’s steadfast gaze doesn’t portray a carefree state of youth but knowledge of what will come to pass, naturally in time to us all. There is a strong sense of the Feminine in Nature in Sandeman’s work which transcends her identification as a female artist.

Mabel Pryde Nicholson’s (1871-1918) The Grange, Rottingdean (1912, Oil on canvas) contains a different kind of knowing in her complex interior double portrait of her children Nancy and Kit. Her daughter is seated in profile in the foreground, staring fixedly through a window we cannot see but which illuminates both her and her brother, who we see through an open doorway to another room. Framing the space the girl occupies, and also the male child like a proscenium arch, is a wall dividing the domestic space; decorated with a series of six 18th century military costume engravings on the wall. On top of a rounded corner cupboard to the left, a statue of a blue and red coated gentleman with a cane seems to mirror the attitude of Kit, the artist’s son, looking directly at us through the open door. Wearing a Glengarry cap, his hands are steadfast in his pockets, feet apart in an assured, rightful stance. It is a Vermeer –like space in terms of its intimacy and perspective, but intensely psychological in the accents of colour and mark, drawing the viewer’s attention to status and gender, the relativity of one child to another, established in the light hitting them both. This sense of illumination invites interpretation; in the display of masculinity in the home and in the foreground space occupied by the female child, pensive, self-contained and absorbed in her own thoughts. One feels looking at this image that the boy’s experience of life has an established historical precedent of position, of the man he will become and the traditional space he will occupy within the family home. His sister’s foreground position within the composition brings her closer to the artist’s own space, feminine experience and in relation to her male sibling. Curiously in spite of the boy’s age, size and  distant position, his presence is expanded within the painting by masculine objects to the point where the artist renders him and his older sister equal human presences in the work. It is of course a mother beholding her children and one could argue an interior life/ figurative study, but the tension in this work suggests more than that; a more potent sense of psychology and a subtle, powerful comment on gender.

Born in Canada and resident in Scotland from 1928 until her death, Margaret Watkins (1884- 1969) is has been acknowledged far more widely in the New World. A pioneer Fine Art photographer working in the world of advertising, Watkins exquisite monochrome compositions are beautifully poised, her juxtaposition of objects full of associative narratives. Domestic Symphony is a photographic statement of tonal rhythm using everyday objects; eggs and the scroll of a bathtub, elegant as any treble clef. Seemingly mundane objects become elevated through Watkins’ eye and lens and in the arrangement of her still life compositions. Head and Hand (1925, Palladium print) is an elegant, though sharply ironic, image of the hand of dancer/ author Marguerite Agniel holding a carved, stylised head- a portrait of herself by the American artist Jo Davidson. It’s an image of idealised Beauty, display and possession, with the woman holding an appropriated image of Self in three dimensions, there in the palm of her hand where the gaze of others assumes its proper proportion. The hand itself adopts a pose of attention, a powerful positive surrounded by negative space.

I was delighted to see the work of Hannah Frank (1908-2008) included in the Modern Scottish Women exhibition. I had the great pleasure of meeting and interviewing her, a few years before her centenary. She was, and still is through her Art, an irrepressible spirit and I think her sculpture Woman with Bird (1955, Bronze) sums up my thoughts about this exhibition. A female figure sits cross legged, holding aloft a bird with care and aspiration, about to extend its wings to fly. Frank renders the figure with characteristic delicacy and strength of spirit. It’s an image of freedom, imagination and Hope- a work which only she could have created.

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