‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

By Miriam Cosic

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986 © Anne Ferran / Copyright Agency. Courtesy National Gallery of Australia

Examine Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1621painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes closely, if you dare, and try to make an argument that her painting wasn’t as visceral and technically proficient as other, more famous shock merchants of the early baroque period. Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes, painted in 1599 and just as bloody, comes to mind. It’s no surprise that Caravaggio influenced Gentileschi; what may be less well known is that Gentileschi used the face of fellow painter Agostino Tassi, whom she and her father unsuccessfully took to court for rape and breach of promise in 1612, for Holofernes. Now, there’s a revenge fantasy.

Gentileschi was already a proficient painter in her father’s workshop, which was the only way a woman could train at a time when guilds were closed to them. She eventually worked professionally and was even made a member of the Accademia di Arti del Disegno in Florence. Yet all this wasn’t enough to keep her name in the annals of art – until feminist art historians rediscovered her in the later 20th century. It’s taken 400 years for things to begin improving.

The exhibition that recently opened at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra – Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now – is a staging post on the path from the rise of feminist art scholarship in the 1970s to gender equality in some dreamed-of future. There have been dramatic steps along the way, starting with the pioneering 1975 exhibition Australian Women Artists: One Hundred Years 1840–1940, curated by the art historian Janine Burke when she was just 23 to mark International Women’s Year in Melbourne.

The feminist orientation given to the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) by curator Ian North in the 1970s was important. Under North – and continued in the ’90s under Ron Radford’s directorship through to the 2010s under Nick Mitzevich) – Gallery 4 was devised, my favourite room in any Australian state gallery. (Mitzevich’s successor, Rhana Devenport, became AGSA’s first female director.)

Gallery 4 was titled “Australian Modernism”. Visitors would have had to look closely at the wall texts to realise that all the paintings were by women, among them Margaret Preston, Thea Proctor, Grace Crowley, Dorrit Black and Ethel Spowers. South Australians were over-represented in the list, not surprisingly perhaps, and the qualifying word “women” didn’t appear in the signage. The paintings were simply offered as great examples of the genre.

Others saw North’s point. Apropos of a 2005 travelling exhibition of Preston’s work, Rex Butler, an art historian and now professor of art theory at Monash University, wrote, “It is becoming clear as the years go by that it is Margaret Preston and not, say, Sidney Nolan or Fred Williams who was the most important Australian artist of the 20th century.” Others, such as Art Gallery of NSW curator Daniel Thomas and writer Humphrey McQueen, were supportive of women artists, though such men were so few they are now memorable for it.

Victoria should have been the trailblazer in Australia. By the early 20th century, women students outnumbered men at the authoritative Melbourne School of Art, which trained generations of Australia’s finest painters. Several of those women made a profession of their art, travelling to Europe on scholarships and continuing in adulthood to work in a studio. Some of those women’s names have remained in the canon, though they earned less esteem than their male colleagues. 

Although some of those pioneers received good reviews by the male critics, each burst of fame was fleeting. Many of them didn’t marry or have a family, which was the only way they could prioritise their work when child-rearing and running the household were seen as women’s responsibilities. The writer and critic Cyril Connolly famously said that there is “no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway”. And he was warning the artist’s wife.

Painters Ethel Carrick and Emanuel Phillips Fox, a married couple, didn’t have children and treated each other’s work with equal seriousness. His paintings remain prettily emblematic of the era, scattered widely around Australian state and regional galleries, and his fame towers over hers. Yet he respected the more avant-garde aspects of her work while disdaining the movement in general. And she was busy. When they lived in Paris, she exhibited with the women’s group Les Quelques and was a vice-president of the International Union of Women Artists. He often mentioned her work in letters home to colleagues in Australia.

It wasn’t just an Australian thing. Think of the Abstract Expressionists, who burst onto the New York scene immediately after World War Two. The names of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and more still echo, but are the women in the circle – Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and (my favourite) Joan Mitchell – as well known? Clearly not.

E.H. Gombrich’s ubiquitous and authoritative history The Story of Art, published in 1950, didn’t contain a single woman artist. Their work was still largely seen to be inferior, though several received good reviews when they showed, and “women’s” themes of still lifes and portraiture (tell that to the Dutch masters) were bestsellers and so attracted those who needed financial independence – which, of course, confirmed the prejudice. 

And so to last year, which saw the exquisitely curated Here We Are exhibition of women artists at the Art Gallery of NSW, and two smaller shows in Victoria: Modern Australian Women: Works from a Private Collection at the NGV and Becoming Modern: Australian Women Artists, 1920–1950 at the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Work by women artists had reached 25 per cent of the NGA’s collection when the gallery decided to bolster its representation. It adopted the hashtag #KnowMyName, taking cues from the #5WomenArtists campaign by the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington DC. The US museum had started with some galvanising statistics: according to a Public Library of Science survey, based on more than 40,000 works by more than 10,000 artists in the permanent collections of 18 prominent American art museums, 87 per cent of artists are men and 85 per cent are white. The NGA is also working with The Countess Report, which measures gender representation in the Australian visual arts.

The current exhibition is an exhilarating one. Prepared by NGA curators Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt, it has been divided in two, with part one running until July 4, 2021, and part two opening later that month. The opening wall of part one contains an arrangement of 50 fine works, many of them relatively famous, including self-portraits by Stella Bowen (Self-portrait, 1929) and Nora Heysen (Self-portrait, 1932); abstract works by Olive Cotton (Glasses, 1937), Grace Crowley (Abstract painting, 1947) and Emily Kame Kngwarreye (Yam awely, 1995); and photographic works such as Brenda Croft’s striking black-and-white portrait of Dr Aunty Matilda House (Matilda, 2020) and Anne Ferran’s Scenes on the Death of Nature (1986). The range of eras and media represented on the opening wall, and the calibre of every piece, provides a potent primer for the rooms that follow.

From the 1970s, women artists worldwide began to come to prominence, often more for the controversy than the artistry. Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party (1979) included symbolic vulvas in each setting and was intended to showcase forgotten women of history. Louise Bourgeois’s spider motif eventually became the famous 9-metre sculpture Maman in 1999. Australian women artists, too, began to emerge from their obscurity. The domestic “women’s themes” were eclipsed by political themes. They included the female body, which had traditionally been seen through the male gaze. That is, either the sexually alluring odalisque or the religious symbolism of Mary, Mother of Christ: the mother and the whore. Of course, feminist artists were criticised for self-absorption when they tackled the woman’s condition, ignoring that the biological and psychological self-examination was fully half of humankind.

It had started earlier. In the exhibition are Hilda Rix Nicholas’s Une Australienne (1926), a bravura portrait with the subject all bundled up in winter clothes and striking, well, what we would today call a “fuck you” pose. Freda Robertshaw’s technically precise Standing Nude (1944), is exactly what the title refers to with no hint of sexuality, though it is quite lovely; the model might have been heading for the bath. A post-impressionist work of Ethel Carrick’s, The Market (1919), is there too.

Once photography gained ground as an artistic genre, it was revelatory in the hands of women. Some used it to present a feminine twist on conventional art history. Take rea’s work. A black, queer Gamilaraay / Wailwan / Biripi woman, she turns an ironic eye on the Heidelberg School’s celebration of the man in the bush while interrogating the crisis of colonialism. In the exhibition, her PolesApart (2009) is a series of photographs of the artist, with her cropped hair and wearing in a woman’s mourning dress circa 19th century, moving through the blackened aftermath of a bushfire.

In 1984, Julie Rrap, an intellectually powerful artist, created a suite of deconstructed self-portraits called Persona and Shadow, each a dye destruction print, which mirrored some of Edvard Munch’s depictions of women. Each has a subtitle pointing to an aspect of feminine experience. In Persona and Shadow: Puberty, she is trying to hide her pubic hair; in Persona and Shadow: Virago she is wearing a tie against her naked body; in Persona and Shadow: Madonna, she is wearing traditional Middle Eastern dress again deconstructed: a hip-length burka without a face covering. The NGA had bought two of them originally, and then completed the collection – including having to reprint some of them – in advance of Know My Name.

Anne Ferran’s Scenes on the Death of Nature (1986), already referred to, is a series of five black-and-white photographs of group scenes showing reclining girls and women ensconced in lush folds of drapery, which suggests the historical sacred. Again, there is nothing sexual about them; the male gaze is missing. Rather the works suggest, to me at least, the grandeur of women’s lives and the states of resting between the rigours that define them. Ferran herself has said, “It could be said of these photographs that the language they ‘speak’ is so much a part of our culture that the audience already knows how to interpret them, even if it doesn’t ‘know’ that it knows.”

In her famous 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, the American art historian Linda Nochlin considered the unending “is–ought” philosophical problem. “In the field of art history,” she wrote, “the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may – and does – prove to be inadequate not merely on moral and ethical grounds, or because it is elitist, but on purely intellectual ones.”

Further on, she writes, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education – education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world.”

Forty years on, Know My Name gives a different answer to Nochlin’s famous question. These works show that there are, and have been, great women artists.

Postscript: A squandered opportunity. NGA director Nick Mitzevich’s $6.8 million acquisition of Cube, by 39-year-old Jordan Wolfson, has raised eyebrows among critics with varying worldviews (though all male). Presumably, it is intended to be Mitzevich’s Blue Poles moment, though his justification is quite different from James Mollison’s. Mitzevich told journalists that Cube “will be a work of art that becomes a destination”. A recent profile in The New Yorker called Wolfson’s work “event art” and his New York gallerist has said, “Annoyingness is an interesting strategy in art-making.” Imagine if the NGA had used the momentum of Know My Name to make news with the purchase of a powerful piece by an internationally famous contemporary artist who happened to be a woman.

Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now Part One runs until July 4, 2021 at the National Gallery of Australia.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986 © Anne Ferran / Copyright Agency. Courtesy National Gallery of Australia

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