oil on courduroy with found bowler hat
Collection of the artist, photograph Carl Warner
oil on courduroy with found bowler hat
Collection of the artist, photograph Carl Warner
As part of the broad mission of promoting women's art, the focus of the Foundation’s blog entries will sometimes shift away from material directly based on the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art or the activities of the Foundation and onto wider topics - a single artist or event or artwork or, in this case, a book review. Books about women artists are useful on many fronts: making hidden or obscure information permanently available for collectors, curators and students, from both schools and universities, documenting unfamiliar careers and artworks, establishing the reputation of women artists by enabling critical discussion and helping to equalise the vast imbalance in both publication and scholarly/curatorial activity between male and female artists.
Whilst publications on male and female artists face a statistical discrepancy, by number count alone, there are also perceivable differences in the manner in which women artists are written about as opposed to how authors and curators approach male artists. In a specifically Australian context, two high profiled and much-loved authors – Rosalind Hollinrake and Drusilla Modjeska – have set a tone in which (especially historic) women artists’ careers are also embedded in a narrative of emotional drama and the artists are often ironically detached from the context of the concurrent artmaking and art theories around them. Certainly the artworld of their contemporaries often simultaneously nurtured women artists and passed over them with scant attention, but today often women artists are discussed in a vacuum, without consideration of their professional peers or acknowledging other scholarship that touches upon them. In thinking of how readers and gallery visitors in Australia learn about women artists, the ongoing impact of Rosalind Hollinrake's spectacular rehabilitation of Clarice Beckett, and the popularity of Drusilla Modjeska's books on women artists with the general public and book groups can not be underestimated. Hollinrake has produced a major book and a touring exhibition of Beckett's work. Her rescue of Beckett's paintings from a country shed is a defining moment of Australian art history in the public eye. Modjeska's fiction is also a key popular influencer around the history of women artists given that a number of real life creative women, both Australian and international, feature in her fiction/docudramas from 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi to Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney.
On occasion authors writing on women artists consciously seek to replicate aspects of Hollinrake and Modjeska's practice, or the excitement that unfolded around the two iconic surveys of historic women's art in the 1970s, those by Janine Burke at the Ewing and Paton Galleries and Women's Images of Women at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Thus arises the theme of writing women artists' biographies as a sort of personal quest which also involves the writer, or the vast tranche of biographies where the writer is often a friend or even a relative of the subject. In some cases these biographies are self-published. Male artists, by contrast, are often examined by authors in a more dispassionate and business-like tone. Is this good or bad? Does this emotionally inflected manner of writing represent an alternative or a dissonance? Are we forced to echo the lament of Margaret Atwood's character Offred: “You wanted a women’s culture … Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists.”
In this context, John Cruthers presents a review of a recent monograph covering the life of an important Western Australian woman artist who made a significant contribution to bringing contemporary culture and design to mid century Western Australia, and in establishing a radical painted response to the West Australian landscape. For those readers outside Western Australia, Helen Grey-Smith is doubly sidelined as both regional and female and this study will establish her more vividly in public memory.
Cruthers Art Foundation blog
UWA Publishing, December 2016
Most books tell stories, but some books are stories. Gwen Phillips’ monograph on Western Australian artist Helen Grey-Smith is one such. Author and subject met on a long bus trip from the south west town of Pemberton to Perth in the early 1990s. As Phillips recounts in her introduction: “I was greatly impressed by her presence. She was a working artist with a lively and cultivated mind. She had lived through fascinating times, of the British Raj in India, life in an English boarding school, design training in London and then working in England during World War II. In the 1950s to 1970s, she and her husband were very prominent in the visual arts scene in Western Australia, living at Darlington then later at Pemberton, which is where I met her.”
While on secondment to the Art Gallery of Western Australia as a teacher in 1993, Phillips began to research the Grey-Smiths. A short time later she began a Master of Education degree at Edith Cowan University, which became a study of Helen Grey-Smith, based on long conversations recorded with the artist in her kitchen in Pemberton.
Her M. Ed thesis is the basis of this book, and it’s a book bounded at one end by female companionship and at the other by serendipity. When it came time to find a publisher, Phillips was equally guided by fortune, approaching UWA Publishing which, in 2012, had released Andrew Gaynor’s monograph on Helen’s husband Guy Grey-Smith. Being able to book-end this publication with one on the pioneer modernist’s wife and her work must have been irresistible to the publisher.
The opportunity to hear Helen Grey-Smith’s story in her own words in one of the book’s chief attractions. Stretching back on each side, Helen’s family were well off, industrious and religious. “They read the Bible every day,” she remembered. Her parents were English expatriates in India, where the colours and sights made a strong impression on the child Helen. At eight she was sent to boarding school in England, where she became Head Girl.
In 1937 she began studying interior design, considered a safer option for a young woman than being an art student, although it was to be a fateful choice. She was aware that her own training, in design, did not equip her to be an artist and work in oil paint.
In the late 1930s she met and married Guy Grey-Smith, a Western Australian born pilot for the RAF. But when Guy was shot down over Germany there was a long separation. Helen worked in a factory, which opened her eyes to the lives of ordinary working people. It was to be a revelation. After a prisoner exchange in 1944, Guy began art tuition and discovered his vocation as a painter. Once together, they set up home in Chelsea as Guy studied at the Chelsea School of Art and Helen became a housewife.
On their return to Australia in November 1947 they moved into a war service house in the Perth hills. As her husband built his studio and his career, Helen gave birth to their two children. Eighteen months in the UK followed, where Helen learnt textile printing. Back inPerth in 1955, the children were old enough for school and Helen resumed her art practice.
Over the next decade she built a career and a business as a textile designer and printer. Using simplified forms derived from nature and printed using silkscreen techniques, she made long lengths of material for curtains, clothing, upholstery and other applications. Much of her work was in response to commissions, including for Perth Council House (500 yards), the Reserve Bank of Australia (commissioned by Dr Nugget Coombs), University House at the University of WA (600 yards) and the Meerilinga Children’s Foundation. She and Guy printed it all themselves, by hand, in their small studio. She also made prints she showed in joint exhibitions with Guy from 1956 to 1967.
Late in 1967 Helen suffered a setback when a repetitive strain injury in her wrist forced her to abandon the arduous physical activity of printing hundreds of metres of fabric. After a period recovering in Bali she turned to collage, and the smaller scale works that followed became the basis of the second stage of her career. She liked collage for the texture it provided to the painted surface, and because she could use the scraps from her screen-printing. Her first exhibition of collage works in 1968 was also her first exhibition of work in her own right. From that point on she worked as a painter, making several series of ambitious, larger scale works after Guy’s death in 1981. Over this period she had 12 solo exhibitions, making her one of Western Australia’s most exhibited women artists. A retrospective was staged at Curtin University of Technology Perth in 1987.
Drawing on her extensive interviews, Gwen Phillips handles Helen Grey-Smith’s life well, often using the artist’s own words to tell the story, sum up or reflect. In dealing with Helen’s art and its narrative the author is less assured, and the book shows some tension between biography and art, with the former usually having greater focus. Where space permits, the author analyses individual works well, and when Helen is quoted, as she is about the Karri Forest and Rock Pool series, there are valuable insights. But entire series – for example the Summer, Autumn and Winter landscapes shown at the Undercroft Gallery in 1979, among Helen’s major contributions to the local landscape tradition – are quickly passed over. And there is little attempt to frame a complete assessment of her work, its major themes and its place in local painting.
Regarding the issues that presumably arose for Helen as an artist who was also a mother and the wife of a more successful artist, Phillips is guided by Helen’s own statements: “The sense of a complementary and co-operative partnership comes across very strongly in her marriage to Guy Grey-Smith…. Generosity and mutual respect lent this partnership endurance.” There is little discussion of the influence Helen and Guy may have had had on each other’s work. They often travelled together and painted the same subjects, and it is fascinating to see Helen using collage for texture in her land and seascape works while Guy made use of heavy impasto for the same reason. And yet their work could not be more different in terms of style and sensibility.
The other dichotomy present in the book is between thesis and artist’s biography. Some of the material presumably required for academic purposes, for example the historical analysis of women’s position in the history of art, or the brief history of collage, feels out of place in what is basically an artist’s biography. In adapting the thesis for publication, these sections could have been replaced with a more consistent focus on Helen’s art and its development.
A significant point evident from the book and the companion exhibition WA Focus Helen Grey-Smith held at the Art Gallery of WA in November–December 2016, is the relative neglect the artist suffered at the hands of local collecting institutions. The Art Gallery of WA collected her printed fabrics of the 1960s, but no later collages or paintings, although a small number have been donated. As a result she’s a largely invisible figure institutionally. And yet the best paintings in the series cited above provide a revealing contrast to the better known west coast art of the post-war period, dominated as it was by the male pantheon of Helen’s husband Guy, Howard Taylor, Robert Juniper and Brian Blanchflower. As a result Western Australians will have limited opportunities to discover this artist and her subtle but distinctive interpretation of the local landscape. The book, profusely illustrated, becomes doubly important, although it’s regrettable that some of the images are not in sharp focus.
In conclusion, it may be that the strong positive impression Helen Grey-Smith made on Gwen Phillips on that initial bus trip from Pemberton was the main factor shaping this book. Phillips celebrates the artist’s qualities – her “dignified, independent, full and contented life” – as she quite justifiably should. But the respect and affection she held for her subject may have limited her ability to provide the kind of detailed analysis and objective, carefully weighed overview of her oeuvre that would have been a more telling legacy for Helen Grey-Smith’s not inconsiderable achievements.
Small quibbles aside, Gwen Phillips’ monograph is a useful addition to the selection of books on Australian women artists. More a biographical study than an artbook per se, the book allows us to hear Helen’s thoughts on her life and art, and reproduces a generous selection of works spanning her career, plus a useful summary of her exhibition history including details of individual artworks.
Chair, Cruthers Art Foundation
Curatorial advisor, Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art
As curator of the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art can you give an overview of what your position entails?
My job involves the usual curatorial activities, including devising an exhibition program based on the collection, as well as producing lectures and public programs; producing didactic panels and marketing material; facilitating public access to works in storage where necessary; facilitating the annual Cultural Gifts Program donations by the Cruthers family that transfer the works from the Deed of Bailment, as well as any other donations offered by third parties; campus display; cataloguing database administration; managing any loan requests, and liaising with the Curatorial Advisor of the collection - John – about any or all of this. It’s a full plate for 2.5 days a week but I’m never bored!
Given the origins of the collection as a family collection, what sort of impacts has that made upon your approach, or do you find that the practice and ethics of curating is consistent across different contexts whether the works have been acquired via curatorial selection or private gift?
I think the ‘ethics’ of curating remain somewhat consistent, in that a curator is a ‘caretaker’ with responsibilities to the work and to the institution, but shifts in context also shift the nature of that responsibility. Something fundamental to my thinking on the collection is how its existence within the institution impacts on the thematic parameters of acquisition and interpretation of what constitutes women’s art and women’s issues by the Cruthers family. In a private collection, this specific direction can operate as a radical statement against the canons of art history, but within a public institution, which has the effect of ‘canonising’ those themes as history, the collection can risk making essentialist statements about women’s experience over time. For example, the focus on the domestic interior, particular the kitchen, is very relevant to early modern art and to second wave feminist critiques of domestic labour, but a continued focus on it as a subject in contemporary art may obfuscate and trivialise the reality of contemporary women’s experience.
Thinking of your series of exhibitions from the collection, can you talk of these, given you present several curated exhibitions a year?
I’ve tried where possible to avoid ‘overarching’ themes connecting the entirety of the exhibition program, for reasons discussed above, but the exhibitions in themselves have individual curatorial theses.
Glitter: Pat Larter vs Lola Ryan (2014) involved travelling to the Art Gallery of NSW archive, where Pat Larter’s archives are held, to conduct primary research on the objects held in the collection. This exhibition was useful in both highlighting difference and forming connection, and for looking directly at some of the preconceptions around particular processes and aesthetics in terms of gender and value. Pat’s work has been re-examined in a few contexts recently, but much of the text published on her painting at this time had been written by a particular male art critic who seems to almost wilfully misunderstand them, so it was very satisfying to produce a counter-argument and highlight the value and innovation of her practice. It was also exciting to be able to make what I think is a meaningful connection between her paintings and Lola Ryan’s shellwork, from the La Perouse tradition – both of which have been overlooked by institutions previously because of their association with a feminized form of kitsch.
Commissions of Western Australian artists to make site-specific works in the Lady Sheila Cruthers Gallery - Shannon Lyon’s candy striped wall-painting for OBJECT LESSONS I: Painting (2015) and Anna Dunnill’s delicate sculptural drawings for Self Portrait as shared dream (2014), for example - have also, I think, been very successful connecting the collection to a new audience. It’s to me important that it be presented as a living resource and not a historical artefact, and that artists of my generation are able to respond to its concerns.
Thinking also of placement of the collection within the University, can you detail some of the academic programs and educational aspects of the collection that are in place or being developed.
I present an annual lecture for Gender Studies for a unit called ‘Reading Bodies’, which for the last few years has resulted in the students writing one of their assignments, and occasionally exam essays on the collection, so it’s fantastic to see new dialogue and awareness be generated around the collection that way – although I suppose it is sort of by force.
Last year Janice Lally, who is Curator of Public Programs here at LWAG, and I developed a program with Rosalie Primary school, in response to Kelly Doley’s work Things Learnt About Feminism 2014, which was exhibited at the gallery. We discussed feminism and protest poster making with a group of year 5 students, using on Kelly’s work and some additional collection works, screen printed posters from 1980s/90s poster collectives, like Another Planet and Redback Graphics as examples. After this, the students made their own posters and a video that highlighted issues of concern to them. It was great to see how much they understood of feminism, and of issues like climate change, mental health and the impact of the internet on their lives, and how they were able to use humour and wit to convey their ideas.
Can you talk about the new acquisitions made since the presentation of the collection, either as a list such as you have emailed me or in terms of some specific items that you feel should be mentioned?
The collection becoming a Deductible Gift Recipient has meant that we are now able to receive gifts through the Cultural Gifts Program, which enabled the donation of Erica McGilchrist’s 1954 painting from the Kew Mental Hospital Series, The Abandoned. As you’ll know, Linda Short at Heide had identified this as an important example of her early practice.
We also received a substantial direct donation of close to 40 prints and works on paper by Lesbia Thorpe from an anonymous donor.
Purchases have been limited, but I’ve been focusing where possible on contemporary art, as holdings from the last 20 or so years – when the family were negotiating the donation – require expansion, and as well areas that are so far underdeveloped, like photography. I’ve acquired photographic works from Thea Costantino and Destiny Deacon, as well as new work from Raquel Ormella, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Anna Kristensen and Teelah George. I was also able to secure Kelly Doley’s major work, Things Learnt About Feminism 1# - #95 2014, 95 hand painted posters about feminism derived from her Learning Centre: Two Feminists performance at West Space, Melbourne in 2012, where she invited 16 different participants to teach her about feminism. It’s an important work I think, because it celebrates and critiques the achievements and challenges of feminism, even its limitations.
What is your current exhibition in the Lady Sheila Cruthers Gallery?
On show at Lawrence Wilson currently is The Likeness, a chronological examination of over 100 year of self portraiture and portraiture, one of the collection’s key theme, which features some of the CCWA’s most iconic works – including Freda Robertshaw’s Standing nude 1944 and Elise Blumann’s 1937 Self portrait. The latter has just been re-framed to approximate its original condition, following research by Dr Sally Quin for her book on the artist: Bauhaus on the Swan: Elise Blumann, an émigré artist in Western Australia, 1938-1948, and looks fantastic. Certain works in The Likeness will be swapped out for others during the exhibition, so it will end up telling a number of different stories about the evolution of portraiture and self portraiture over its run, which ends on July 8th. After that, Country and Colony, opening July 22nd, will showcase a range of perspectives on the Australian experience, and will feature a number of new acquisitions for the collection.
As a rounding off, perhaps you could also bring in some of the material that came up at the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand conference last year (2016) with your presentation?.
My AAANZ talk examined some of the ideas I discussed in relation to your second question, the ethics and challenges of curating a thematised collection already defined by its ‘difference’ from institutional collections, and how this thematic approach has impacted on the reading of particular collection works. A key example of this is Miriam Stannage’s Still life 1974 - part of her Kodachrome series that replicated photographic slides as large scale paintings. Still life features, as its ‘image’ within the painted slide format, a series of real-life kitchen implements. Between its reproduction with other works in the Kodachrome series in an article by Patrick Hutchings in Westerly magazine (September 1975), and the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s loan of the work from the Cruthers family for a retrospective of the artist’s work in 1989, the work’s title had shifted slightly, to ‘Kitchen still life’. The original title - Still life, also used by Hutchings in his article - is written by the artist on the verso. In the process of being interviewed by Lee Kinsella for a monograph on her work, published shortly after her death last year, Stannage evidently described her unease with the prioritisation of the work’s subject over its play of image-object; Kinsella notes “…She remains resistant to having her work interpreted on the basis of being a female artist, and so it was a source of irritation to her that Kitchen still life (sic) 1974, the only Kodak Slide painting that referred to a domestic space, was acquired to be included in a collection of women’s art.” (See Lee Kinsella (ed.), Miriam Stannage: Time Framed, UWA Publishing, 2016).
Still life has often been presented, in its CCWA context, with other ‘domestically’ themed works, such as Jenny Watson’s My mother’s kitchen 1977 and Helen Grace’s Christmas Dinner 1979, which tends to somewhat distort the concerns of the each artist and can risk, in chorus, sentimentalizing what is in the case of all three artists intended as a form of critique. This challenge, of respecting artistic intention but also showcasing the aspects of the collection that make it unique and idiosyncratic – its partiality and its private history – is, I think, an important one to consider moving forward, particularly as the collection acquisition policy specifies that particular themes – the domestic environment, the body, self portraiture, children and family life, gender issues, for example. Something that I’m very interested in is how the collection can remain radical when it is speaking about these themes with the authoritative voice of the institution, so it doesn’t – to quote yourself quoting the great Joan Kerr in Into the Light – “self congratulate itself on its revolutionary outlook, despite promulgating a reality that is different.”
AFTERWORD BY JULIETTE PEERS
Rather than focussing on how the Cruthers Collection now sits within the context of being in a public artspace, i.e. the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery or within the academy itself as represented by the University of Western Australia, ideas that are effectively outlined above, I am engaged by some issues leading out of your answers. These ideas remain "wicked" problems, that often resist resolution, or are avoided because their touchy and contradictory nature, and the complex debate that they raise.
The relationship between outlying or dissident knowledges and the centre/canon is one such wicked problem, given that public culture routinely celebrates radical and revolutionary energies, whilst endorsing and maintaining rigid structures and hierarchies. We live in an era of an institutionalised avant garde, where even conservative regimes (at least in democracies) fund and support creative arts that are not necessarily easy or accessible to a general audience. Due to global cold war trends, the avant garde became institutionalised in Australian public culture towards the end of the Menzies era (early 1960s), despite Sir Robert Menzies himself being a cliched byword for arch-conservatism in Australian visual arts patronage.
Miriam Stannage's unease with the placement of her work raises a major persistent irony of feminist curating and art writing. Down the generations certain women artists at any given era have disliked being viewed from a gendered perspective. Alice Bale, for example, would likely have been equally uneasy as the very different Stannage about feminist narratives being evolved around her works by later generations. Especially in the 1990s I recall energetic disavowals of, yet simultaneously complex and reluctant acknowledgements of, the need for feminism within public discussions of art in Australia, particularly at live events such as artist's talks or symposia group line-ups. The compulsion to talk feminism away, or only identify with certain types of acceptable, non-tainted feminisms, and not with other versions of feminism, suggests that feminism was a touchy and live subject, despite being claimed to be seemingly irrelevant in contemporary art practice at that date. Are we discussing the importance of respecting artistic integrity or ratifying career anxieties that persist in an artworld where the romantic modernist myth of the "genius", independent, self-made, disdainful of convention and restrictions still holds traction? For an artist to present as anything less than self confident and assured, when women artists are still routinely assumed in public culture to be apologetic and derivative, entails an admission of failure, a fatal flaw when corporate and public culture seems to still endorse a neo-Darwinist narrative of winners and losers.
Some artists have always been uneasy with curatorial or academic narratives written around their work, and then there is the truism that artists are often the worst placed to read sub narratives and implicit content emerging in their work. The increasing fusion of curator and artist career paths in the past two decades means that the antagonistic romantic conflict between dealers/collectors/curators/critics/academics on the one hand and artists on the other has become increasingly irrelevant. Yet such conflict is often played out ritualistically, despite the more direct overlap of the two roles. Perhaps one could also throw into the mix Griselda Pollock's recent observation that the original Impressionist group shows contained more paintings by women than modern professionally curated and documented blockbusters that present a scholarly view of an impressionist movement whose gender balance is not borne out by the historical record. Pollock surely advocates for the ongoing relevance of feminist interventions in high level curatorial and academic discussions of art even in the present day.
In a museological and curatorial context, the afterlife of bequeathed properties and collections is volatile. Should the industry norms of public institutions prevail - and given the vulnerability of public collections to the shifting values of fashion and peer group consensus - which era's "norms" should be respected? Conversely ought donors have the option to "future-proof" their gifts, to preserve their beliefs and intentions in amber? Do collections and institutions need to be able to modify donor stipulations in order to factor in emergent technologies and social practices that were not known when the gallery was established?
 When the Deed of Gift covering the donation of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art to the University of WA was signed on 30 June 2007, a Deed of Bailment was also signed. This Deed covers the conditions under which UWA agreed to store the entirety of the CCWA, which was to be gifted to UWA in yearly tranches.
 Into the Light: the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, eds John Cruthers and Lee Kinsella, UWA Publishing, Perth, 2012.
By Juliette Peers
What is the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art?
Whilst known to art curators, academics and art professionals since the later 1980s, the Cruthers Collection was first presented in depth to the public at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts during the National Women’s Art Exhibition in 1995, during a national celebration of women’s art in multiple public art spaces across Australia. Yet this remarkable public collection, unique in Australia, is still unfamiliar to many general art lovers. The strong popular interest in early Australian women’s art - that has at times eclipsed art professionals’ support of women artists over the past forty years - suggests that the collection will grow a far wider fan-base once it is better known.
The family started collecting art in the early 1970s but since 2007 the collection has been a public one, given by the Cruthers family to the University of Western Australia, after discussions with regional and municipal councils failed to secure a commitment to a permanent home and stand-alone museum of Australian women’s art. The plan is ultimately for the collection to have its own home within the university. Already the collection at the University of Western Australia is the largest stand alone public collection of women’s art in Australia. The earliest pieces are by Ellis Rowan from c 1880s and Clara Southern from c 1890s, and new work is still purchased such as the important sculpture No vacancy 2011 by Michelle Nikou, which recently featured in her survey at Heide Museum of Modern Art, and touring through to 2017. Self-portraits are commissioned from living artists such as Sangeeta Sandrasegar and Sera Waters. Over the years approximately 600 artworks have been donated by the family, with more to come.
The collection has its own small dedicated gallery within the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery on campus, where a series of exhibitions from the collection are presented, in some cases augmented with borrowed or commissioned works. These exhibitions are curated by Gemma Weston, who is employed at the LWAG to support the collection as a physical entity. Moving to a public collection has extended the range of media that could be collected with an increasing component of sculptural pieces and installations that would have been harder to fit within a domestic building. Digital printmaking and photographic imaging and also the return of “craft” into fine arts since c 2000, further emphasised by the recent trends of “new materialism” in the second decade of the 21st century with works in responsive and mutable media such as textiles and wax, also are expanding the range of works, as there is a return to focussing on process and intrinsic qualities of surface and substance.
A major survey exhibition Look. Look Again covering the whole timespan of the holdings was presented in 2012 at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, together with a symposium on women’s art practice, Are We There Yet?, organised by the Cruthers Art Foundation. The symposium represents an important component of the whole Cruthers project as the mission is not just to accumulate artworks and build the collection, but to proactively encourage discussion about women’s art. Debate can range from the specific qualities and experiences bound up with women’s art practice to public culture’s blind-spots around endorsing and celebrating women’s art-making. There is a small online presence via the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and earlier exhibitions are searchable through the gallery’s past exhibition archive. The Cruthers Collection shows are clearly identified within the program for each year. Illustrations of many works from the collection can be found in the two publications featuring the Cruthers Collection, In the Company of Women 1995 and Into the Light 2012, and many will be featured on this blog in months to come. Another overview with illustrations may be found on the Cruthers Art Foundation website.
Given that so many Australian art collections aim to be blueprints of each other, marking “excellence” by including the same range of well-known artists, the Cruthers Collection stands out even more. In 1991 the late Associate Professor Joan Kerr then at the University of Sydney believed that the great Australian collection of women’s art was a dream that was not realised, yet that collection was quietly being assembled on the west coast, even as she aired her dissatisfaction with the contents of Australian public collections. Two areas stand out as featuring a particularly strong representation. Best known are the holdings of early modernism from the 1920s to the 1940s, where women are now recognised as making a highly significant impact upon Australian art. Many works from the Cruthers Collection have been loaned to exhibitions in major interstate public galleries featuring modernist women. A second strength of the Cruthers Collection is art of the 1980s. There is a particularly comprehensive representation of third wave feminist artists, and some of the first women artists to achieve a high profile in the post 1960s contemporary art market, including Vicki Varvaressos, Rosalie Gascoigne, Susan Norrie and Narelle Jubelin alongside some of the key artists exploring Indigeneity, identity and feminism from a contemporary art perspective across the 1980s and 1990s such as Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley and Judy Watson.
Another nationally important feature of the collection is the series of self-portraits, which now number almost 100. Whilst not encyclopaedic, they cover a timespan and selection of artists that is unmatched by any other collection of female self-portraits in Australia. They range from the austere and subtly subversive c 1895 self portrait of Cristina Asquith Baker, which unflinchingly includes her damaged right eye, to contemporary commissioned self-portraits. In many cases the self-portraits are matched with significant works by the featured artist. Collecting a self-portrait and representative examples by the same artist was much favoured by Lady Sheila Cruthers. When the collection was in the family home, works by particular artists were often hung in close proximity in a “salon hang” with the self-portrait in a prominent place, as documented by photographs of the time. As well as self-portraits there are women artists’ portraits of siblings such as those by Clarice Beckett and Portia Geach and also images of family members and domestic life such asHelen Grace’s series of images of Christmas Dinner. There are several significant extended caches of works by a number of artists, most notably those of Joy Hester, Narelle Jubelin, Susan Norrie and Julie Dowling.
Works on paper ranging from modernist relief prints of the interwar period to works from the print-making revival since the 1950s, form a substantial subgroup. Rare ephemeral protest and political feminist screen-prints from the 1970s and 80s are another focus of collection, as they have often been discarded and destroyed over the last four decades, not being considered worthy of public memory. Often screen-prints were simply functional as much as aesthetic, used to catalyse support for particular meetings or fundraising and lobbying drives, and discarded once the event or campaign had passed. The current exhibition of Kelly Doley’s recent series Things learnt about feminism is both a homage to and an update of this quintessential feminist artform. A series of works feature bright coloured cheap paper and catchy slogans. Sometimes the words are obvious clichés of motherhood statements and motivational catchphrases, others in the set resonate back to historic moments of feminism and in some cases they swerve more into a more surreal and enigmatic textual poésie concrete mode.
Western Australian artists from both settler and Indigenous cultures indicates the vitality of an art history that was in the mid 20th century generally overlooked in east coast-centric models of history writing and curating. The work of the Tasmanian Edith Holmes equally represents less familiar aspects of modernism, as does the work of Hobart-based impressionist Mabel Hookey for the “landscape tradition” in Australian art. Likewise ex-patriate artists such as Sheila Hawkins and artists who moved between Australia and New Zealand such as Maud Sherwood and Helen Stewart also outline a non-standard and multi-layered historical thread. From the 1970s onwards the Cruthers family has been alert to artists who were working on the margins of the accepted narrative, or who had small but impressive oeuvres or careers that did not follow a straightforward path or the clichéd model of a logically built up reputation.
Despite the diversity of outlooks and approaches more apparent since the 1990s, particular themes persist throughout the collection: the female image and perceptions, commentaries on domestic life, families and relationships, both loving celebrations and acidic deconstructions of gender roles and expectations, commentaries on identity and the changing experience of Australian life or being in Australia. A number of works such as Grace Cossington-Smith’s Dawn landing 1945 and Cristina Asquith Baker’s view of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne engage with public life and politics. Ann Newmarch’s screen-prints address female absence from the public arena and the pressures of control and trivialisation that are applied to women’s lives. Whilst the collection is famed for its avant garde pieces and for tracing a revelatory and interventionist position of women artists exploring new practices, there are some attractive conservative still lives and tonal paintings, and self-portraits by academic artists as well as neo-classical formalism from Nora Heysen and Freda Robertshaw. Another less familiar history that the collection maps is women artists’ important role in developing abstraction in Australia from the 1950s onwards from Margo Lewers to Angela Brennan, and the very characteristic mid 20th century interest in combining landscape and abstraction via Lina Bryans and Carole Rudyard.
I was intending only to write an overview of the contents and range of the Cruthers Collection, but the last few weeks have thrown up some remarkably open and hard-hitting discussions about the ongoing lack of visibility of women’s art in Australian public collections. Given that it is four decades since the emergence of the women’s movement in Australian art c1974-1975 and those four decades have witnessed a rapid increase in unequivocally successful and respected contemporary women artists, there has been a lack of corresponding institutional validation of this generational shift and the four decades of female art-making. No longer personal complaints, these discussions about the measurable inequalities in visuals arts in Australia have been aired in highly visible mainstream media such as ABC Radio and The Guardian newspaper. Partly triggered by The Countess Report (funded by the Cruthers Art Foundation) as well as the outspoken Natty Solo Blog, public disaffection for the constant parade of male artists as featured in blockbuster exhibitions, has finally received some unequivocal and well directed attention. Criticism highlights the unrepresentative nature of the focus of fine arts sense making, as opposed to the expectation in such sectors as health, education, government, from local to federal, as well as national sporting organisations, that the current actual make-up of Australian society shapes the public face of those institutions, which are assumed to speak to and reflect back the images and aspirations of many sectors of a diverse public. At the same time art institutions also have to factor in industry-specific peer-group concepts of what is excellence and what is regarded as a meaningful or relevant aesthetic experience, and that expectation has tended to justify the closed loop of safe and known curatorial choice.
Recent discussion has drawn attention to the repetitive nature of public gallery exhibitions and collections in Australia, particularly in terms of the highly sponsored and elaborately mounted and promoted exhibitions at state galleries and the National Gallery of Australia. Public symposia such as that held by NAVA at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne are also interrogating these absences of a significant sector of the art-making community within public exhibitions and career-making opportunities, and why these inequalities are judged to be acceptable within the industry, despite grass roots dissatisfaction.
So the Cruthers Collection can be read not just as something to enjoy and explore, but as political and a dissonance to this collusive pattern of marginalising women artists. A non-standard collection, when so many public collections across the country are close mirror images of each other - with minor differences begotten only by budget and availability of artworks - is a vital point of cross reference. A collection that is not the same as the others indicates that curatorial choice and policy can look different if the opportunity to think outside the box is taken up and run with. A collection like the Cruthers Collection can be an educational tool, reminding the public and researchers about less familiar artists whilst being itself a change-agent, via the stimulating shifts of perspective that alternative viewpoints may offer.
It can also be, via its exhibitions and this blog, potentially an active participant in these ongoing discussions and debates.
By Juliette Peers
You are reading the first posting for the Cruthers Art Foundation blog.
In the months and years ahead, we hope to inform, entertain, educate, shock, irritate, delight, surprise [alongside every other verb in the thesaurus] you by discussing women’s art and the broad field of associated issues, current and historic, that impact upon audience reception of women’s art in Australia and globally. Above all we want our readers to be inspired to – in the words of our 2012 exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery in Perth – “Look, look again” at women’s art, and indeed never stop looking at women’s art in all its variety and diversity. Given that public commentary on women’s achievements across a wide spectrum of activity in Australia, from sport to culture to commerce to politics is in quantitative terms alone far less than that devoted to men, this art blog can make a practical step in shifting this unequal weighting.
Whilst subjects and writers will frequently centre upon the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art, from the micro level of an individual artwork to the macro level of policy and theory, this blog hopes to also provide a clearing house, info exchange and catchment for a wide range of relevant ideas, events and comments. Interviews with makers, doers, thinkers and curators, exhibition and event reviews, guest postings, curated mini themes and festivals, are part of future plans.
The Cruthers family date their introduction to collecting women’s art to the year 1974, when two generations of the family began purchasing art, with some landmark acquisitions of modernist women’s art occurring shortly after their entry into visiting galleries and buying art. By the early 1990s, “Word seeped east” in the words of John Cruthers, writing for the PICA showing of the collection for the National Women’s Art Event in 1995, “that there was an interesting collection of women's art in Perth, and a growing stream of people came to see it.” Museum directors and curators, art historians and collectors all passed through the Cruthers home to view the art. Individual works were often loaned to exhibitions and in 1994 curator, gallerist and artist Jo Holder who had long known the collection suggested that it be shown publicly as part of the coordinated festival of exhibitions of women artists in both public and commercial galleries across Australia, organised by Holder and others under the auspices of Associate Professor Joan Kerr. This was the first time that a large tranche of the artworks was visible outside the family home. Placing the artworks in an artspace affirmed the cultural importance of the collection at a national level.
It became clear that preserving works by sometimes little known and under-appreciated artists and making these artists and their characteristic themes and preoccupations available to the public was only one part of the story. A multitude of factors have led to the lack of profile and status accorded women artists trans-historically, and to achieve their mission the Cruthers family increasingly realised that they had to be engaged on behalf of women’s art through a variety of channels. One crucial area certainly is the preservation of the artworks and making them permanently accessible to the public. This was begun in 2007 by the gift of the core collection of 460 artworks to the University of Western Australia, and subsequent donations of work and funding of curatorial support to assist UWA manage the gift. At the same time the family began the Cruthers Art Foundation.
However the issues do not only centre upon the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art and the works it contains, or even specifically onsite in Perth. The Countess Report indicated that whilst equality in employment statistics is growing within the visual arts sector, particular in curatorial and boards of management areas of ARI’s and in educational contexts, women’s art is seen less frequently than men’s across a wide range of exhibition spaces and contexts. The impact and the causes are diffused nationally and happen at both at structural level of the arts industry and at the small scale of an individual’s own experience with making and showing work. Nor is the issue to be found only in auction houses or dealer’s stockrooms, but it also impacts upon current experiences of art education and art practice. To that end the Foundation is developing from support for the CCWA at UWA to engaging in learning about and then seeking to change a range of issues around practice. Its first funded project was The Countess Report, a large scale national gathering and comparing of data about the relative proportion of male and female artists, art and activities across the contemporary educational, museum, commercial gallery and art publication sectors. The second funded project will focus on historical research into women artists. This blog is also a means to circulate ideas about women and art and to encourage debate.
Writing for the Foundation’s blog promises to be an exciting and important challenge for me, with a potentially transformative impact. My own POV is like that of Erica McGilchrist, one of the founders of the Women’s Art Register in 1975. Whilst McGilchrist was committed to radical and non-representational art as well as social justice issues from the 1950s onwards, she also consciously restrained from shaping selection policy at the Women’ s Art Register visibly to her own taste. Partly she felt that not enough was known about the gamut of women’s creative activities in the 1970s to make an accurate and effective call upon what was worthwhile or not. She also was strongly haunted by the Nazi Holocaust to the extent that she often had disturbing dreams about extermination camps, and she disliked competitive hierarchies and systems dominated by elites and “in crowds”. She wrote in scathing terms of a range of such structures from the AFL to Australian universities and although her politics were radical, she never hesitated to call out the left as well as the right for their mistakes and poor judgment. The agora has become even more contested, judgemental and bitter in the years since 1975, and in some ways both the loudness and the self-righteousness resembles the rough justice and gang mentality of the school yard. Social media has allowed more points of view to be articulated but has dramatically reduced the fuse of mutual tolerance.
In the same spirit women’s art will be defined broadly, across media and discipline, and across the known and the unfamiliar, contemporary and historic, to speak to a wide range of browsers and readers.