During the lockdown I watched Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking TV series, Civilization (1969), and was struck by how often this most courteous art historian said things that are now taboo. Clark wasn’t trying to be callous, but our criteria for eligibility have become so rigid – dare I say it, paranoid – that statements once considered politeness are now seen as misogynistic.
In these politically enlightened days, it is wise not to generalize about any artist in terms of gender or ethnicity. One should not praise the lyrical “feminine” or imagine that there is something inherently different about female artists. Of course, this does not apply to a female artist who emphasizes her essential difference from her male counterparts. The rules are not applied uniformly.
I would risk just one generalization: those men who call themselves feminists or who go out of their way to display feminist sympathies almost always sound fake. I remember Chip, the dreadful scholar from Jonathan Franzen’s novel The corrections, who teaches feminism but keeps thinking about women’s breasts. When men speak for women, it can sound like a signal of relentless virtue.
So too, when the National Gallery of Australia tells us about the exhibition, Know my name, is “a defining moment in the history of the Gallery”, which “announces a new chapter which addresses historical sexist prejudices to reconsider the histories of art and raise the voices of all women”, it sounds horribly grandiloquent. Will the NGA raise the voice of all women? Instead of that aerial rhetoric and self-congratulation, it would have been better to say, “As we weren’t able to hold many loan shows during the pandemic, we decided to put together a large survey based on collections of Australian artists. “
Museums around the world are striving to provide better representation for women artists, so Know my name is the local expression of a global trend. The first part of the show ran from November 2020 to May 2021, the second part started on June 12 and will run until January 26. We have grown used to such long durations under COVID-19. The basic idea behind the trend and the spectacle is that female artists have historically been overlooked by artistic institutions – but it’s a claim that needs a few caveats.
During the Victorian era, women outnumbered men in many art schools, but few pursued a career as an artist. Most have been beset by child rearing and household chores, conventional roles assigned by society. It was decades before a significant number of women began to do notable work. When they did, with the exception of a few hardy individualists such as Margaret Preston, they were viewed as amateurs by the very conservative men who ran the public galleries. These establishment snobs might have been chauvinists, but they didn’t have time for anything that went against traditional taste, and the most interesting female artists were the modernists.
Women artists began to be recognized in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s and 1970s, with the advent of the counterculture and the women’s liberation movement, that the scales began to tip. . In a new monumental volume, Making Feminism: Women’s Art and Feminist Criticism in AustraliaAnne Marsh notes that “the history of feminism and the arts in Australia often begins in 1975, with reference to the first International Women’s Year and the Power Lecture by American feminist art critic Lucy Lippard.”
It may have been the year a movement was born, but there had already been works of art of largely feminist inspiration. Marsh quotes two notorious and irreverent pieces by Vivienne Binns: Phallic monument (1966) and Vag Dens (1967). Today both are in the collection of the NGA.
Vivienne Binns was included in the first part of Know my name. The second part of the exhibition is rather less frequented than its predecessor, and more focused on modern and contemporary art. The first pieces include the art deco sculpture by Jean Broome-Norton, Woman with Horses (1934), and the neoclassical painting by Jean Belette, Choir without Iphigenia (c.1950), two fine examples of ephemeral trends in Australian art.
The display is organized by theme rather than chronological order, with pieces bearing titles such as Art as a lived experience, which allow the widest possible field of application. It may reflect director Nick Mitzevich’s leadership style, but the entire gallery now appears to be hung thematically – a huge contrast to the obsessive timeline that applied under Ron Radford’s direction.
Personally, I would prefer a happy medium. It’s exciting to mix styles and eras but also confusing. We tend to see artists as unique and creative personalities when they were also part of schools and movements that have to be understood in historical terms, in relation to what happened before and after.
The exhibition is probably best appreciated as a spectacle. Curators Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt clearly enjoyed bringing together various works to create new dialogues and relationships. Superficially, a Marion Borgelt mural has nothing in common with Heather Swann and Rosslynd Piggott’s installations, but putting them together and they form an eye-catching triad. A spiral floor installation by Simryn Gill finds a surprising echo in a pandanus carpet by Margaret Rarru in an adjoining room.
It’s a more orthodox tactic to put an interior scene of Grace Cossington Smith next to a scene of Elisabeth Cummings. Then there are large stand-alone works such as Ewa Pachucka’s figurative fiber sculpture, Landscape and body (1972), or the disturbing diptych of Fiona Lowry, The ties that unite (2018), which suggests unspeakable activities in the bush.
The exhibition is full of strong works and clever juxtapositions, but it does nothing more profound than a celebration of the vitality of Australian female artists. Anyone who wants hardcore stuff should look to Anne Marsh’s book, which relentlessly traces the advancement of feminist art and theory in this country from the 1970s to the present day. In addition to the author’s reflections, the book includes a wealth of reviews and documents. I cannot claim to have read it cover to cover.
Unlike the conservatives of Know my name, Marsh does not consider the genre to be a sufficient ground for including works by a particular artist. On the other hand, if a work is based on a feminist theory, it is not a guarantee of quality.
Art that is primarily didactic or militant will always be associated with a specific time, but the NGA today seems to agree with Henry Ford, who said the story is nonsense. Or maybe they’re testing a sci-fi storyline called The abolition of time.
This is a strategy better suited to a contemporary art museum than to a gallery that holds the artistic heritage of a trusted nation. Sure, let’s celebrate Australian women artists, but a little historical perspective allows us to work our way through myths and mission statements and see everything with much more clarity.
Know my name: Australians 1900 to the present, part two, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until January 26; Anne Marsh, Making feminism: women’s art and feminist criticism in Australia, The Miegunyah Press, hardcover, $ 199.
John McDonald visited Canberra as a guest of the National Gallery of Australia.
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