During lockdown I had another look at Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking TV series, Civilisation (1969), and was struck by how frequently this most urbane of art historians said things that are now taboo. Clark wasn’t trying to be insensitive, but our criteria of acceptability have become so rigid – dare I say, paranoid – that statements once taken as courtesies are now viewed as misogynistic.
In these politically enlightened days it’s wise not to generalise about any artist in terms of gender or ethnicity. One mustn’t wax lyrical in praise of “the feminine” or imagine there is something intrinsically different about women artists. Naturally this doesn’t apply to a woman artist who insists on her essential difference from her male counterparts. The rules are not applied evenly.
I’ll venture a single generalisation: those males who call themselves feminists or go out of their way to display feminist sympathies, almost always sound like phonies. I’m reminded of Chip, the appalling academic in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, who teaches a course in feminism but can’t stop thinking about women’s breasts. When men speak out on behalf of women it can sound like relentless virtue signalling.
So too, when the National Gallery of Australia tells us the exhibition, Know My Name, is “a defining moment in the history of the Gallery,” which “heralds a new chapter that addresses historical gender bias to reconsider the stories of art and elevate the voices of all women,” it sounds horribly bombastic. The NGA is going to elevate the voices of all women? Instead of this airy rhetoric and self-congratulation it would have been better to say: “As we haven’t been able to organise many loan exhibitions during the pandemic, we decided to put on a big collection-based survey by Australian women artists.”
Museums all over the world are striving to give better representation to women artists, so Know My Name is a homegrown expression of a global trend. The first part of the show ran from November 2020 to May 2021, the second part began on 12 June and will carry on until 26 January. We’ve become accustomed to such long durations under COVID-19. The foundational idea behind the trend and the show, is that women artists have been historically neglected by the art institutions, but this is a claim that requires a few caveats.
In the Victorian era, women outnumbered men in many art schools but few went on to have careers as artists. Most were waylaid by child-rearing and homemaking, the conventional roles assigned by society. It was decades before a significant number of women began making notable work. When they did, with the exception of a few rugged individualists such as Margaret Preston, they were written off as hobbyists by the highly conservative men who ran the public galleries. These establishment snobs may have been chauvinists, but they had no time for anything that ran counter to traditional taste, and the most interesting women artists were modernists.
Women artists began to gain recognition during the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s, with the advent of the counterculture and the Women’s Liberation movement, that the balance began to tilt. In a monumental new volume, Doing Feminism: Women’s Art and Feminist Criticism in Australia, Anne 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 delivered by American feminist art critic, Lucy Lippard.”
This may have been the year a movement was born, but there had already been works of art that were broadly feminist in inspiration. Marsh cites two notorious, 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 installment of the show is rather less crowded than its predecessor, and more focussed on modern and contemporary art. The earlier pieces include Jean Broome-Norton’s art deco sculpture, Woman with horses (1934), and Jean Belette’s neo-classical painting, Chorus without Iphigenia (c.1950), both fine examples of short-lived tendencies in Australian art.
The display is arranged thematically rather than chronologically, with rooms given titles such as Art as Lived Experience, which allow the broadest possible scope. It may reflect director, Nick Mitzevich’s leadership style, but the entire gallery now seems to be hung thematically – a huge contrast with the obsessive chronology that applied under Ron Radford’s directorship. Personally, I’d prefer a happy medium. It’s exciting to mix up styles and periods, but also confusing, because we tend to see artists as singular, creative personalities when they were also part of schools and movements that need to be understood in historical terms, in relation to what came before and after.
The exhibition is probably best appreciated as spectacle. Curators, Deborah Hart and Elspeth Pitt, have obviously enjoyed bringing diverse works together to create new dialogues and relationships. Superficially, a wall piece by Marion Borgelt has nothing much in common with installations by Heather Swann and Roslyn Piggott but put them together and they make for an eye-catching triad. A spiralling floor installation by Simryn Gill finds a surprising echo in a pandanus mat by Margaret Rarru in an adjoining room.
It’s a more orthodox tactic to put an interior scene by Grace Cossington Smith alongside one by Elisabeth Cummings. And then there are large, standalone works such as Ewa Pachucka’s figurative fibre sculpture, Landscape and bodies (1972), or Fiona Lowry’s disturbing diptych, The ties that bind (2018), which suggests unspeakable activities in the bush.
The show is full of strong works and and clever juxtapositions but this doesn’t add up to anything more profound than a celebration of the vitality of Australian women artists. Anyone wanting the hard-core stuff should turn to Anne Marsh’s book, which relentlessly charts the progress of feminist art and theory in this country from the 1970s to the present. As well as the author’s reflections, the book includes a massive trove of criticism and documents. I can’t pretend to have read it from cover to cover.
Unlike the curators of Know My Name, Marsh doesn’t see gender as sufficient grounds for including works by a particular artist. On the other hand, if a work is based on feminist theory that’s no guarantee of quality.
Art that is primarily didactic or activist will always be associated with a specific moment in time, but the NGA nowadays seems to agree with Henry Ford, who famously declared that history is bunk. Or perhaps they’re trialling a science fiction scenario called The Abolition of Time. It’s a strategy better suited to a museum of contemporary art than a gallery that holds the art legacy of a nation in trust. By all means let’s celebrate Australia’s women artists, but a little historical perspective allows us to clear a path through the myths and the mission statements and see everything with much greater clarity.
Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, Part Two
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra,
14 November, 2021 – 26 June, 2022
Anne Marsh, ‘Doing Feminism: Women’s Art and Feminist Criticism in Australia’
The Miegunyah Press, hardback, $199.00
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January, 2022