Saturday 16 January 2016

MODERN SCOTTISH WOMEN 1885-1965, National Gallery of Modern Art, EDINBURGH

WOMEN ONLY exhibitions? Hate them. London's Saatchi Gallery has decided in favour. I haven't seen it but reviews are not good. And the current MODERN SCOTTISH WOMEN at GMA Edinburgh is deeply, sadly, troubling. 
As Ethel Walker declared in 1938, "There is no such thing as a woman artist. There are only 2 kinds of artist -bad & good."  Here 45 women are represented by 90+ works, some well known, most not. More than half the 45 women r represented by only 1 work. Not a good move. 

 Much research and hard work has, I'm sure, gone into this - but as the SNG's first major show of work by women ever, unfortunately it is under whelming.
The glass ceiling certainly applies to women artists. Well known statistics prove that major gallery & museum shows, EVEN TODAY, favour men to a HUGE degree. I won't repeat all this info - u can find it on the web. 
The catalogue for this show contains much useful art historical info - on the marriage bar, (if u got married u had to leave yr job) art school restrictions, (segregated life class) records of usual domestic challenges faced then & now. 
Covering 80 years 1885-1965, wives & daughters had less independence than today & these relatively short careers obviously account for some of the poor work. Art education too was scarce. No nude drawing for women of course, (tho my mother who attended Sheffield Art School around 1927, went to mixed life classes, no problem.  
Women had few places to exhibit as they were routinely turned down for the RSA. And who was so busy refusing these women? MEN of course. Keeping their own little clubs safe for them alone. 
I experience this attitude in 1980 when I became chief Herald art critic. The notorious Glasgow Art Club suggested my then-husband join, so that I would be allowed thro the door. Needless to say I never went in. 
 Mary Armour 1947
Anne Redpath was the first woman painter to be elected an Academician in Scotland - as recently as 1952  & she also broke the London RA barrier - in 1960!
Cecile Walton 1912
There is much justified anger among women regarding all the barriers they had to surmount. However none of this useful research makes for a good show. 

Maybe the net has been flung too wide?  I think so. Maybe 45 is too big a number to do justice to ? (A couple of works or less is not adequate.) The definition of Scottish is also too generous. Many here have a tenuous relationship with Scotland. 

Whatever the reason the show does Scottish women artists a disservice. Significant folk like W Barns Graham,  Cecile Walton, Bet Low or Dorothy Johnstone are swallowed up by surrounding female portraits which abound.  And no landscapes - were they all tied to the kitchen sink?
Phyllis Bone 1942. 
The one pleasant surprise is the sculpture - bold, dynamic, ambitious bronzes from Phyllis Bone; Hazel Armour 1894-1985; Alice Meredith Williams 1877-1934 who did Paisley's war memorial; Ann Henderson 1921-1976;  even Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll 1848-1939, daughter of Queen Victoria.  
Ann Henderson 1954
In addition this show has at last allowed Margot Sandeman, Pat Douthwaite, Louise Annand, Margaret Mellis, Willy Barns Graham & Bet Low some attention. 
Barns Graham 1945
They all died recently, & it's a pity they did not receive more attention in their lifetime. I well remember what a struggle they all had. 
I hope their work will soon receive a bigger, more focused, less historical show!

Photographer MARGARET WATKINS is also included here, tho strangely she is not in the catalogue. Her beautiful moody atmospheric shots of Glasgow & New York hang in the corridor, drawing attention to the tight fit of these rooms and passage-ways. 
Nora Neilson Gray 1920s
And true enough this upstairs at Modern 2, as they call this building, is a difficult space for any show. To some it would suggest that as usual the women can go across the road, upstairs and out of the way. 
I hope the next female show will be presented in the large well known space of Edinburgh's main Galley of Modern Art.
Let me know on Fb what u think.

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