Modern Scottish Women – Painters & Sculptors 1885 to 1965 is the first major exhibition of women artists to be mounted by The National Galleries of Scotland, and although it has taken until the 21st century for such an event to happen, this exhibition has been well worth the wait.
This is not just the story of exceptional women artists , but also the political and social prejudices and pressures of their time which led to many of them having very brief careers as not only an artist, but as a free individuals.
Our journey starts pretty much at the beginning of women even being allowed to enter the doors of famous art schools for study, and early names like Phoebe Anna Traquair, Flora Macdonald Reid, Anne Redpath, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Bessie MacNicol and Jessie M King will be well known already to many people. Some of the works on display I have only up until now seen in publications, and they do little justice to the vibrancy and power of the originals. Some works are so far ahead of their time that they could easily belong to a period long after their original dates. A few works that come to mind are The Frog Prince (1913 by Jessie M King) which could just as easily be a contemporary art poster and September Sunlight by Dorothy Johnstone from 1916. This latter painting faces you as you enter the room and could just as easily have been painted (from the clothes and hair style of the sitter) in the 1960s or 1970s. A painting just full of brightness and looking nothing like you expect subject matter nearly a century old to look like.
Dorothy Johnstone is herself a perfect example of the social pressures on women (not just artists of her time) as she was forced to give up her teaching role once she got married. Dorothy Johnstone is also the artist whose work - a portrait of fellow artist Anne Finlay - is the poster art for this exhibition. I have to admit that this is an artist that I have overlooked in the past and from the other works by her in this exhibition I have to admit that that has been a huge oversight.
There are so many works on view in this exhibition that are personal favourites that it is not possible to list them all in this review, but a few include Doris Zinkeisen (Self portrait 1929) with stunningly vibrant colours and amazing details on the fabric worn), Cathleen Mann (Composition in Pink and green 1931) Bessie MacNicol (A Girl of the Sixties), and of course Dorothy Johnstone’s artwork headlining the exhibition (portrait of Anne Finlay). A Girl of the Sixties is another wonderful piece of work that although referring to the 1860s could easily be a century later.
From the later period of this exhibition we have several works by Joan Eardley including one of her paintings of Glasgow children.
The painting works of art on display here cover many styles here, from conventional representational to abstract and illustrate that, in every period and style of work, women of enormous talent where there working.
This exhibition covers not only paintings but other media including sculpture and there are some amazing works on display here such as bronzes from Phyllis Mary Bone (Red Deer – Mother and Son 1942 and Shere Khan The Tiger 1930). Interesting to read was the fact that this artist had a very high profile career in public space art and is responsible for all but one of the animals on the Scottish War Memorial.
Oddly enough though, out of all the wonderful pieces of work on display in this exhibition, one that I really fell in love with was a very modern looking stylised wooden sculpture of a Kestrel from 1936 by Mary Syme Boyd. Amazingly even at this time, this wonderful piece of work was offered for sale at an exhibition for only £10.
As you enter this exhibition there is a wonderful quote on the wall from 1885 by Sir William Fettes Douglas, President of the RSA when he declared that the work of a woman artist was “like a man’s only weaker and poorer”.
If anything sums up the atmosphere that many of these women artists had to work in then this quote is it. Also of course if anyone could ever have been more wrong then this quote is also it, as the work on display here is as strong and of as high a standard as anything painted by men. Actually, it often has a quality that few male artists manage to capture.
This exhibition opens on Saturday 7th November and runs until 26th June 2016 and should be a “must visit” on anyone’s calendar. It is also accompanied by an informative and well illustrated book.
Review by Tom King & Lisa Sibbald