500 Women - Why Stop?

Book review Heritage: the National Women's Art Book edited by Joan Kerr an Art and Australia book published by Craftsman House RRP $150

Edited by Joan Kerr, "Heritage: The National Women's Art Book", 1995, does a marvellous job of mainstreaming the data still awaiting publication in follow-up volumes to her 1992 "The Dictionary of Australian Artists: Painters, sketchers, photographers and engravers to 1870", or already available in widely scattered exhibition catalogues and local histories. "Heritage" is identified as "A Dictionary of Australian Artists Project, funded by the Australian Research Council", but that's the research - by Kerr and, here, 215 collaborators - not the book, which is published by G & B International as "An Art and Australia Book" funded by $45,000 from the Gordon Darling Foundation. And since it is distributed by the energetic Craftsman House it is likely to end up in every library in Australia, perhaps even to be personally bought by teachers. That's mainstreaming at its most effective.

Heritage is typographically tricked up as feminist Heritage (to confront men's History) on its jacket and in Kerr's introduction, though not on the titlepage which has a further subtitle: 500 works by 500 Australian women artists from colonial times to 1955. "We envisaged it as a catalogue of a great imaginary exhibition."

Well, it's an unsatisfactory hybrid between its parental biographical dictionary and an exhibition catalogue. The 500 illustrations (mostly good quality colour whereas the ungenerously illustrated dictionary was only black and white) are not much bigger than postage-stamp size; they proclaim themselves therefore as dictionary illustrations, not as exhibition-catalogue illustrations, which should be large and compelling in their own right. First things - if they were the works of art - have not really been placed first.

There is also a contextualising Chapter 1, a survey of 49 exhibitions, from 1841 to 1955, in which women's art appeared or which were confined to women s art, fascinating for its suggestions that women kept forgetting their own history. Margaret Preston in the 1940s welcomed a woman's exhibition as the first of its kind when her own work had earlier been in others, and she should have remembered more of them as far back as the 1890s.
The "imaginary exhibition" is presented in ten chapters, or themes:

"Gender and Identity Happy Families, Home Sweet Studio, Learning and Earning, Social Life and Travel, Flora and Fauna, Town and Country, Grand Myths and Legends, War Work, Nationalism and Heritage."

These throw up appropriate subject-matter differences between men's and women's art. However it is a user-unfriendly section for those interested in the artists, for the book has no index, and it takes a while to realise that the 500 biographies operate as an index back to the 500 themed images and their accompanying essays.

Further complaints. As in "The Dictionary", we are left uncertain of artists' public working names. "Theresa Snell Walker" or "Theresa Walker"? "C.L. Allport" or "Lily Allport"? And there are errors, which no doubt will be corrected in future editions; I'm pretty sure I reinstated Constance Roth's small "Apples", 1890, in the historically correct, crowded 19th-century hang which I revived at the Art Gallery of NSW nearly 20 years earlier than "1988".

The serious shortcoming is the cut-off at 1955. That seems too obviously a sign of the book's origins in a biographical dictionary, normally dealing only with the dead. Kerr's introduction says, rather feebly, "Originally the compilation was to end at 1945, but this seemed to support the notion that women's art ceased when the men came home after the war, so we added another decade ... It had to finish somewhere and it is, after all, about past achievements". I presume "past" here means "dead artists'", though living artists, Judy Cassab and Erica McGilchrist for example, are present. I believe a mainstream, populist book - i.e. one that might be bought by schoolteachers – fails in its responsibilities if it fails to engage with the present through the mysterious recent past, ideally last year but at least up to 1985. Of course a few older readers of "Heritage" will be able to insert post-1955 art from their own memories, but those schoolteacher readers won't.

The good news is that Heritage includes crafts, which dropped out of The Dictionary ... to 1870, and it continues to honour the amateur women painters whose work was so startlingly excellent a presence in "The Dictionary". And it incorporates the lively modernist arts of interior design and advertising-illustration in which women excelled.

Private practice, domestic use and intimate mood characterised women's art, and the last enters public practice in the media of watercolour, pastel and linocut, and in the categories of portrait miniatures and book illustration. Like the crafts of pottery, jewellery and needlework, these are all difficult to display in museums designed tor the consciously public arts of (big) oil paintings and sculptures.

Present-day art museums in Australia have adjusted their displays to accommodate the intimacy of decorative arts (though they seldom yet maintain 'permanent' displays of watercolours or other works on paper), and Kerr is perhaps too shrill on this matter. As to the few women artists who, in the 19th century, worked in the boys' arena of public oil paintings and big sculptures, I think Kerr is wrong to claim that their work disappeared from art-museum display soon after its acquisition because it was by women. Most of the late-19th-century 'contemporary art' by men also disappeared from display, simply because it was no longer contemporary. The art museums were then run by artist directors and artist trustees, uninterested in illustrating Australian art history or ignorant of it until Bernard Smith in the 1960s first made it a mainstream part of Australian culture. The artist-run art museums, no doubt unconsciously, existed mainly to validate contemporary practice. The work of Eugene von Guérard, a man, whom we now rate probably the best of all 19th-century Australian painters, was not displayed in the early 20th century, whereas Jessie Scarvell's beach scene (not in "Heritage") did, I think, keep public company in Sydney with similar work by the long-lived Julian Ashton from the 1890s to the 1940s - which is when 'modern' single-line display probably thinned the hitherto crowded 19th-century walls.

When Lucy Lippard toured Australia in the early 1970s, consciousness-raising about women's art, it was evident that her mainly academic audiences knew more about foreign art - Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt - than Australian. They were victims of Australian academia's Eurocentric cultural cringe. They shouted: "Why have we not been told about wonderful artists like Margaret Preston?" Don't blame the museums, where Preston's paintings had been displayed non-stop from the 1920s, blame our cultural-cringe educational systems of the past and their associated publication programs. Those 1970s shouters had not been deprived of women's history, they had been deprived of all their Australian cultural heritage, in which women's culture, of course, had a substantial place.
Joan Kerr's book-making strategies will surely have a greater impact on her feminist constituency than art-museum displays, unseen in the 1970s and probably little visited today. Nevertheless, I hope her book will provoke the museums to display those second-line, smaller, 19th-century oil paintings by the like of Emily Meston as well as the easily placed frontline 20th-century oils by Preston, Cossington Smith, Dorrit Black and Clarice Beckett. I believe the social-history point of demonstrating that women were always there with oil paintings in public art museums is just as important as the art-history point of demonstrating that their art was always good, for example in neglected media like an 1845 needlework picture by Eliza Staff in an obscure corner of St John's Church, Parramatta.

My favourite piece of new knowledge: Eleanor Harrison's 1880s-90s Franco-Australian-American career. Favourite mainstreamed obscure work: Annie Benbow's 1900 drawing, a memory of the Tasmanian Aborigines at Oyster Cove in 1847. Favourite hitherto unknown works: Maude Nomchong's Chinese-Christian flowerpiece oil painting, 1906, Pinkie Mack's 1943 mortuary mat-basket (one of quite a few hard-to-find early works by Aboriginal women), and Val Smith's "Bully", a Japanese soldier doll made in Sumatra by a prisoner-of-war nurse.

Heartfelt thanks to Joan Kerr and her mates for these and the rest of the 500 wonderful images. Despite pernickety reservations about the book's structure, the art is marvellous in its own right. It's a triumphantly successful rescue operation and a must-buy book - not only for the ardent constituencies of women's studies or art history but also for everybody interested in Australia.

Reviewed by Daniel Thomas

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