Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

BY BEN REISS

‘Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965’ charts 80 years of female Scottish artists’ work.  It begins with the appointment of Fra Newbery as director of the Glasgow School of Art and finishes with the death of Anne Redpath, the first female painter to be elected an Academician of the Royal Scottish Academy.

In between it covers the founding of art societies specifically for women, the work of female artists during the wars and the increased exposure and recognition of women artists through the middle of the twentieth century. As a loose summary of the work of Scottish women artists between 1885 and 1965, the exhibition is certainly a success.  Each room covers roughly twenty years of artistic production. It is interesting to see several major artistic movements represented, and certainly not in a way which is ‘like a man’s only weaker and poorer’ as Sir William Fettes Douglas so disparagingly (and incorrectly) put it in 1885.

Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection
Anne Finlay by Dorothy Johnstone

Indeed there are highlights throughout. In the first room, Bessie MacNicol’s dreamy ‘A Girl of the Sixties’, dating to 1900, provides a gentle and absorbing entrance to the exhibition. It contrasts strongly with the sharp lines and bold colours throughout the next, and possibly strongest, room.  It is easy to see why Dorothy Johnstone’s 1920s portrait of ‘Anne Finlay’ was used to advertise the exhibition – the bright colours are eye-catching and the sitter’s frank stare draws you in.

Johnstone had a talent for capturing engaging sitters, as the contrasting ‘Girl With Fruit’  and ‘Marguerites’ demonstrate.  The former is full of gleaming colours except for around the head, framed in a square of plain white which draws the eye hypnotically.  ‘Marguerites’ is almost monochrome, but the shining red cheeks of the girl bring the whole composition to life. Even more lively is Eleanor Allen Moore’s ‘The Silk Dress’, dating to 1918, which positively dances with colour and flowing lines.  The sly, knowing smile on the face of the sitter (the artist herself) cannot help but raise a grin in return.

The Silk Dress by Eleanor Allen More
The Silk Dress by Eleanor Allen More

‘Self Portrait’ from the late twenties by Doris Zinkeisen provides a riot of colour – exotic birds on a Japanese-style dress echoed in her bright make-up.  Zinkeisen manages a very different sort of impact in the following room with her ‘Belsen: April 1945’, which reduces victims of the holocaust to inhuman geometric strips.

It is not just painters who are on show though, several sculptures are displayed as part of the exhibition as well.  ‘Shere Khan, The Tiger’, which dates to 1930 by Phyllis Mary Bone was a prowling menace in bronze, with tension etched in every sinew.  The same artist’s work from 1942 ‘Red Deer – Mother and Son’ provided a delicate and tender counterpoint.

Doris Zinkeisen Self Portrait
Doris Zinkeisen Self Portrait

The quality and variety of work on show throughout is undeniably of the highest quality, but this variety is also the exhibition’s greatest flaw.  There is no cohesive element beyond the gender of the artists (and their Scottish heritage), which forces the curators into a dull and linear chronological layout as the only way to bring order. The lack of a strong narrative strand or any cohesive theme gives the whole a rather lightweight and disjointed feel.  There was more than enough quality and artistic talent on show to curate a more interesting exhibition than just ‘Scottish Women’.

It is important to focus on women artists away from their male counterparts in order to gain them the exposure and recognition that they deserve, but it does not make for a hugely satisfying exhibition narrative. Furthermore, the labels accompanying the works made frequent reference to the men in the lives of these artists.  Occasionally, this was necessary to help provide context – for instance Dorothy Johnstone had to leave the staff of the Edinburgh College of Art due to her marriage to David Sutherland.

Also, it possibly served to make the point that in the male dominated artistic arena, it was very hard for a female artist to succeed in isolation.  Unfortunately, the practical result of this constant reference to men is to seemingly reduce the talents of these women to mere extensions of the interests and abilities of their husbands and teachers.

‘Modern Scottish Women’ is certainly worth a visit.  The exhibition is taking place at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and it will be on until 26th June 2016. It provides a valuable reminder that despite the many challenges to women artists, the art world at the beginning of the twentieth century was not a purely male domain.  More than this, it demonstrates that plenty of the female artists of the time were easily the equals of their male counterparts.  However, the weak narrative means that a few days after the exhibition, all but a few of the most inspired and striking works may well have faded from memory.

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