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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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Women make history

by Jennifer Higgie, 19 January 2022

Mary Chomley
Mary Chomley, 1909 Violet Teague

For far too long, the accepted history of art was one of white male achievement. If women were mentioned, they were usually cited as subjects, not creators. Even though there is clear documentation of female artists working professionally across Europe from the 16th century onwards, and Indigenous women have been central to cultural expression for millennia, in the first editions of the most popular art-historical textbooks of the 20th century, E.H. Gombrich’s Story of Art (1950) and H.W. Janson’s History of Art (1962), the only women mentioned are those painted by men. Similarly, in the renowned art historian Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form – which was first published in 1956 and covers art from Ancient Greece to the 1930s – not a single female artist is mentioned. In the index ‘woman’ is categorised under ‘condemnation of’; ‘crouching’; ‘old’; ‘nudes of’; ‘prehistoric’; ‘statues of’; ‘virgin’. That a woman might be creative is not discussed.

For centuries, women had no political agency and if they had artistic ambitions, they were barred from the traditional training so necessary to a professional artist – such as access to a life studio, an art school, an apprenticeship – but still, they persisted. Many women turned to self-portraiture – as they were often the only subject available – and many of them excelled at it. The Italian Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola, for example, was the most prolific self-portraitist between Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt. Women artists also became adept at portrait painting, especially of other women. Marie-Antoinette’s favourite painter, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, famously painted more than 30 portraits of the French royal family before they met their terrible end and, in 1768, the Swiss portraitist, Angelica Kauffmann was one of only two women among 34 men who founded London’s Royal Academy. In the 20th century, numerous feminist art historians, such as Janine Burke, Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock, have explored the rich contributions of women to art history. To see a portrait of a woman painted by another woman is to spotlight a history that for too long was kept in the shadows.

Women artists in Australia had it better than most: they had access to art schools from the late 19th century, were avid travellers and (non-Indigenous) women were granted the vote in Federal elections in 1902. (Compare this to, say, France, where women couldn’t vote until 1944.) In 1907, the First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work was staged in Melbourne: it went for five weeks, comprised 16,000 displays and was visited by over 250,000 people. Its aim was twofold: to celebrate women and to educate the public in all aspects of their accomplishments. The remarkable Mary Chomley – a charity worker, women’s rights advocate and founder of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Society – was the secretary of the committee who organised this groundbreaking event: the first time the achievements of women had been so publicly showcased. When Violet Teague painted her portrait two years later, Chomley, who was in her 30s, was at the height of her powers. In loose, swift brushstrokes, Teague pictures her as grand and human, elegant and energetic. She looks out with a frank, open expression. In an enormous, lush brown hat and dressed in a eucalyptus-green jacket over a silvery dress, she’s posed, not in a drawing room – which you might expect from her outfit – but against the raw, dry land, beneath a forbidding sky. With one hand on her hip, she’s more than ready for action.

Her portraitist surely matched Chomley’s energy and sense of social justice. Born in Melbourne in 1872, Teague travelled widely, studied painting in Brussels and in London, exhibited at the Paris Salon, became an illustrious portraitist and an expert in Japanese woodblock printing, painted altarpieces and was an accomplished poet and art critic. During the First World War, she also devoted much of her time to French and Belgian war charities. In 1933, she and her sister Una visited the Hermannsburg Mission (Ntaria) on the traditional lands of the Western Arrarnta (Arrernte) people in Central Australia. So shocked were they by the living conditions that they staged a fundraising exhibition and raised more than £2000 (around au$275,000 in today’s money) towards the development of the Kuprilya Springs Pipeline to transport clean water to the local population. The eminent Arrernte artist Albert Namatjira subsequently named one of his daughters Violet.

A year before Teague painted Chomley, the 41-year-old South African-born Australian artist Florence Ada Fuller was commissioned to paint a portrait of Lady Deborah Vernon Hackett. Married at seventeen to a man 40 years her senior, Hackett was to have three husbands, become a mother to five children, a Lady Mayoress and the director of a mining company, write The Australian Household Guide (it included 3500 recipes and tips on looking after animals and running a home) and fundraise for numerous charities. In Fuller’s wonderfully vivid portrait she is only 21, but clearly formidable: she looks directly at us, forthright in a wicker chair and a soft green dress, her long hair tumbling over her left shoulder. She’s like a character in a Miles Franklin novel: feisty, uncompromising, bold.

Fuller was successful as both a landscape and portrait painter and had opened her own studio in Melbourne before she was 20: quite an achievement for a young woman in the 19th century. She travelled to South Africa, Europe and India; her work was shown at the Paris Salon and London’s Royal Academy, and by 1914, three public galleries in Australia and South Africa had collected her work. Like Violet Teague before her, she joined the Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875, is dedicated to the study of esoteric knowledge and doesn’t discriminate in terms of ‘race, creed, sex, caste or colour’. Tragically, after a life of art, adventure and travel, in 1927, Fuller was committed to Gladesville Mental Asylum in Sydney, where she died in 1946. Her death went unremarked; despite her trailblazing talent, no newspapers carried an obituary, and her considerable legacy has only recently been reappraised.

The myriad portraits of women painted by women make clear that no two artists or sitters are alike. To wander among the many portraits of women by women in the National Portrait Gallery is to realise the futility of generalising about a ‘feminine sensibility’: the subjects are artists, writers, judges, film directors and actors; fundraisers, activists and mothers. Each artist responds to their subject with a unique approach. In Ingrid Erns’ portrait of Paquita Mawson, for example, from the late 1940s, a crisp brightness has supplanted the loose, sepia tones of Teague’s portrait. Mawson was a writer who worked on behalf of Dutch refugees in the Second World War and was, like Chomley, tireless in her support of various charities, including the Red Cross. Married to the Arctic explorer Douglas Mawson, Erns portrays Mawson seriously gazing into the distance, an elegant woman wrapped in a beautiful blue and cream patterned wrap – too restless, I imagine, to sit still for long.

By contrast, the artist Jenny Sages’ portrait of the great Anmatyerre artist and leader in Awelye (women’s business) Emily Kame Kngwarreye shimmers with the light and ochre dust of Country. Sages had been travelling to Central Australia for decades when, in 1993, she painted Kngwarreye sitting cross-legged in the dust, her expressive hands resting on her lap, her eyes closed as if in a reverie. A youthful woman sits behind her, looking out expectantly, perhaps ready to take the mantle. Here, the landscape is pictured as an extension of Kngwarreye’s flesh: nature and human united in dreaming, in history, in connection.

Jo Bertini’s The sitter (Drusilla Modjeska) (2001) is also a portrait of a woman deeply engaged with her interior world. The writer Modjeska, in her mid-50s, is portrayed with her pale head bowed, deep in thought and bathed in light, possibly from a nearby window. Around her neck is a string of pearls: a precious talisman that once belonged to the writer’s mother. The story goes that in the first iteration of the portrait, Bertini had neglected to include the necklace. Modjeska felt its inclusion was crucial, and so, at the opening of the exhibition, the artist swiftly drew it in and later painted it. Modjeska melds with her surroundings; the writer’s imagination dissolving boundaries between real and imaginary worlds.

In 1966, the ceramist and fibre artist Marea Gazzard posed for her friend Judy Cassab – the first woman to win the Archibald Prize twice. Cassab owned Dial, a 1966 stoneware piece by Gazzard; it’s possible that the two women swapped work. The first elected president of the World Crafts Council, Gazzard – like so many of the women in the Gallery’s collection – was not only an artist but also an activist: she campaigned to highlight the creative possibilities of materials that had been previously pigeonholed as craft, not art, because of their association with ‘women’s work’. The polarisation was heightened in 1973, when Gazzard and the artist Mona Hessing mounted the now historic exhibition CLAY + FIBRE at the National Gallery of Victoria. Cassab represents Gazzard as the embodiment of her craft: her skin is clay-like, her glowing cerulean blue robe as vivid as a glaze, interrupted by flashes of translucent opacity. Staring dreamily into space, she sits in an abstracted environment: a tactile, earthy presence – the imagination made flesh.

These wonderfully introspective portraits find a contrast in Kerrie Lester’s joyful 1989 painting of the film producer Margaret Fink. In her late 50s, with her red lips, large earrings, a smart hat and elegant black ensemble, she is jaunty; across her chest is a sash that reads: ‘Gala Soirée’. She’s in a light-filled white room, decorated with flowers and a star-shaped chandelier; details of the painting are embellished with hand-sewn diamantes. It’s a blunt, cheerful depiction of a woman who drove the revival of cinema in Australia in the 1970s and to whom storytelling is paramount.

In 1995, the artist Rosemary Valadon chose to portray another star of Australian cinema, the beloved actor Ruth Cracknell, as the Sibyl. In Ancient Greek mythology, the sibyls were, of course, oracles and prophetesses – not unlike the role of contemporary actors. Valadon depicted Cracknell in a highly enigmatic and dramatic setting: in jewel-like blues, greens and reds and dramatic lighting, Cracknell – a modern-day goddess – sits on an elaborate chair, flanked by statues of muses, and holding an open book. Surrounded by masks, she looks at us with great gravity, a fistful of coloured sticks in her surrendered hand. It was part of The Goddess Series (1990–1996), which depicts a cross-section of Australian women as mythological figures, including the feminist author Germaine Greer as Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and Dale Spender, the writer, editor and publisher, as Europa.

Great art is a reflection not only of the time in which it was made but the period in which it continues to be displayed. (Ghosts have much to teach us.) A national collection mirrors the complexity of the populace it speaks for. The exclusions of the past can only be righted by the increased visibility of the legacies not only of women artists, but also artists of colour, those who weren’t formally trained or those with different abilities. That institutions are now highlighting these important stories enriches our experience not only of art but also our understanding of the complexities of the country we live in. The story of art is one that reflects us all.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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