Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Thoroughly Modern Muses: the representation of women in Pallant House Gallery’s collection
[ Stories )
From Artemisia Gentileschi to Celia Paul, all too frequently women artists are only discussed in relation to their male contemporaries, their own artistic output sidelined.
Our Head of Collections Sarah Norris takes a look at some of the women artists in our collection who fought to be recognised as an artist – and not just a muse.
50 years ago, Linda Nochlin published her pioneering essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. In it, she encouraged us to examine and question the social and institutional structures that underpin artistic production, the art world, and a traditional narrative of art history that created opposition for women. This bias has meant that women artists have struggled to remove themselves from being defined by the male artists they are associated with, to not be constrained by the fact of their own womanhood or avoid it in order to attain autonomy.
Histories of early 20th century Modernism focus on the perceived masculinity of what was considered ‘high art’. Women’s experience of modernity and contemporary urban life was very different to that enjoyed by men. These constraints served to compromise and marginalise women working in the period.
I had great masters. I took the best of them, of their teachings, of their examples. I found myself, I made myself, and I said what I had to say.
Works by Suzanne Valadon can be examined in this context as women turned to the female body as primary subject for women’s experience. Valadon, the daughter of an unmarried domestic worker grew up in Montmartre, and became an artist’s model in the early 1880s after working as a circus performer. She sat for some of the most important painters of her day, including Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Puvis de Chavannes. Valadon’s female nudes drew upon those experiences of being an artists’ model. They are solid, rather than the idealised subject of the male gaze. They seem far removed from contemporary notions of a gendered art and feminine sensibility.
70 years later, Jacqueline Morreau also sought to redefine accepted notions of gendered identity, through her figurative work and re-imaginings of mythological and biblical themes. This was at a time when some certain factions within feminism regarded any direct representation of the female body to be retrogressive.
Morreau drew attention to the problems of attempting to conduct what she called the “triple life of the woman artist’” in the 1970s, juggling conflicting demands of motherhood, marriage and art, while simultaneously struggling against the sexism that restricted women’s access to exhibition spaces.
Celia Paul has spoken of life after Lucian Freud and her need “to make this story my own”. She was seduced by Freud, then aged 55 when she was 18 and his student at the Slade School of Fine Art. The relationship has led to Paul being routinely identified as subject to Freud, her presence dominated by his own and her work marginalised.
Only in her forties did Paul turn to self-portraiture. In Painter and Model (2012) (Collection: Victoria and Warren Miro), she depicts herself sitting in a painting smock, paint tubes scattered around her bare feet. She has said that it wasn’t right to portray herself standing, about to paint, as “women don’t have a secure place in the history of art”. Her quiet presence nevertheless marks her transition from passive muse to active artist.
When Lucian died I was shocked by how I was seen in the world… I was ‘Lucian Freud’s muse’. I felt I needed to do something about this. I thought the way to do that would be to make this story my own.
Relatively little is known about Dinora Mendelson’s artwork. What we do know is drawn from correspondence in relation to her stepfather, the artist David Bomberg (1890- 1957), and her marriage to artist Leslie Marr (b. 1922).
The daughter of Lilian Holt by her first marriage to Jacob Mendelsohn, she studied with Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic 1947-53. She later became a member of the Borough Group. Having posed as a model for both her stepfather and husband, Mendelson subverts the male gaze in what is understood to be a self-portrait and entitles it Muse .
Kaye Donachie’s figurative paintings primarily refer to literature, biography and archival imagery. She has a strong interest in early 20th century avant-garde women who contributed to art and culture but remain marginalized figures in history. For Donachie these women have a clear sense of identity, represented through their writing and art and as muses.
Monotonous Remorse was inspired by the poems of Iris Tree (1897 – 1968), a poet, actress and muse, painted by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry through her association with the Bloomsbury group and also Augustus John and Modigliani. Sculpted by Jacob Epstein and photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton she would also appear as herself in Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960). The title is a line from Tree’s poetry, a device used by Donachie to evoke a particular sensation or mood and create dialogue between work and viewer.
Work by women artists in Pallant House Gallery’s collection reflect the challenge of redressing traditional narratives of power, identity and multiplicity of roles, presenting a personal memory or shared experience. It is a personal mythology that informs the work of contemporary women artists for whom feminism is an established part of the cultural fabric of today’s society. A modern muse indeed.