As the title suggests this is an exhibition of work solely by female artists, and it is in many ways shameful and sad that such an exhibition is even necessary in the C21. But it is. And in seeking to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the generations of female Scottish painters and sculptors from 1885-1965, the Gallery of Modern Art is going some way to remind us of how much we all lost through the patronising and discriminatory attitudes towards female artists in the C19 and much of the C20.
The period covered by the exhibition covers the period from the appointment in 1865 of Fra Newbery as Director of the Glasgow School of Art to the death of Anne Redpath in 1965. Newbury turned the GSA into the most enlightened art school in the UK in its support of female staff and students and made it possible for many of the artists in this exhibition to gain an art education. Redpath was the first female painter to be elected a full member of the Royal Scottish Academy, breaking open an institution who first denied women the right of election and then grudgingly limited them to associate status. It not only highlights some 40 artists, many of whom remain practically unknown, but it also tells their stories. Some of those stories are most distressing stories, such as the highly talented Bessie MacNicol (1869-1904) who died of eclampsia in her early thirties having already shown what a prodigious talent she was, or Dorothy Johnstone (1892-1980) who was required to give up a teaching post at the Edinburgh College of Art because a Marriage Bar prevented married women from holding full-time teaching positions.
While it may be unfortunate that it is a necessary corrective to have an exhibition focused simply on the work of women artists, the result is a triumph; a collection of wonderful pictures, the combined effect of which is to make the heart sing. Inevitably, given that gender and a connection with Scotland (sometimes, it should be said, a fairly loose connection) are the principal selection criteria, there are a broad range of styles and subjects on display from the bold abstraction of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham to a harrowing picture of Belsen by Doris Zinkeisen. These particular pictures, both illustrated above, are in fact vital to the exhibition in reinforcing that any artistic subject or style is equally open to artists of any background. But the core of the exhibition is a series of portraits of women by women which are each in their way delightfully uplifting.
The first room of the exhibition sets the scene for what follows with two delightful portraits by Bessie McNicol, an artist who I’m ashamed to say I did not know before this exhibition. Both the portraits deal masterfully with the effects of dappled sunlight through a tree. McNicol was an early female student at the Glasgow School of Art and also studied at the Academie Colarossi in Paris, which had a more enlightened attitude than any UK institution to female students participating in life drawing classes.
Dorothy Johnstone is another artist with whom I was not previously familiar and who is well-represented in the exhibition. The bold colours and composition of September Sunlight are particularly striking and life-affirming, whilst Rest Time in the Life Class includes a vignette of her teaching in the background and inevitably invites comparison with Laura Knight’s ground-breaking self-portrait with a female nude painted some ten years earlier. Johnstone’s picture is not as pointed or provocative as Knight’s earlier picture and in fact reflects the relatively progressive attitudes of the Edinburgh College of Art.
The two pictures by Margaret Oliver Brown (1912-1990) and Norah Neilsen Gray (1882-1931) could not be more different and seem to me to look both backwards to the late Medieval period and forward to a very photographic style. They are both very striking images.
One of my favourite portraits in the exhibition is the above Composition in Pink and Green by Catherine Mann who was not only a highly successful painter, and a official was artist in the Second World War, but also a costume designer in the film industry and a designer of posters for the London Underground.
I mentioned earlier, Anne Redpath’s election to the RSA in 1952 and a work, The Indian Rug, by Redpath in this exhibition to demonstrate how thoroughly that election was deserved.
I could go on. The pictures by Joan Eardley, for example, would merit a commentary on their own. The exhibition continues until June 2016 and if you have the chance to visit I would strongly encourage you to take it. There is of course an important underlying message about discrimination against women artists. But more important it is a joyous and uplifting exhibition, full of colour and vitality, and works which would surely delight anyone.