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Writing Jessica Dismorr back into art history
[ Essay )
Why was Jessica Dismorr forgotten? More importantly, why should we know about her now?
As an artist, Jessica Dismorr was at the forefront of the British avant-garde. Her works encompass the Rhythm group, Vorticism, post-war figuration and abstraction yet she has fallen, unjustly, into obscurity.
Who is Jessica Dismorr?
Jessica Dismorr is by no means a household name, but her life touched upon so many areas of creativity.
Legend would have it that Jessica Dismorr (1885 – 1939), in a scandalous display against convention, stripped naked in Oxford Street in 1919. We will possibly never know if this story is true, but her progressive art certainly mirrored her radical politics. Born in to a family of means, as one of five daughters, Dismorr was encouraged to study and eventually enrolled at The Slade. At a time of increasingly volatile clashes over the rights and roles of women, Dismorr would become a leading member of both the Rhythm and Vorticism groups. Later, she would pioneer abstraction in 1930s Britain exhibiting with The London Group and the Seven and Five Society – now synonymous with artists such as Ben Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens and John Piper.
You are one of the only people in this country who have a chance of doing fine work, one of the half dozen in short.
Wyndham Lewis, 1915
So why was she forgotten?
Vorticism was, in fact, what I, personally, said, and did, at a certain period.
How is it possible that people Dismorr knew, associated with, and co-signed manifestos with went on to become legendary figures of modernism, yet she received such little attention? Although there have been extraordinary women artists throughout history, a largely male-dominated narrative of art history has often reduced the roles of these women to muses, or other more supporting, traditionally ‘feminine’ roles, or written them out entirely.
Let’s take a look at William Roberts’ painting of the Vorticist group ‘The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915’, 1961 – 2. Front and centre is Wyndham Lewis – Ezra Pound and William Roberts, to name a few, are seated with him. Their backs turned to the door, the men leave no seats at the table for the women stood in the doorway. There, clutching her purse – ironic given the financial support she offered the group – we find Jessica Dismorr. Side-lined alongside her is Dismorr’s close friend and contemporary Helen Saunders.
Modernity offered women such as Dismorr and her contemporaries the freedom to make bold and experimental work, even to build lives for themselves as artists, but tension continued to grow around the perceived clash between the role of ‘artist’ and the preconceived notions of what a woman could be – even in the Vorticist group which had female members. Some groups, such as the Camden Town Group, excluded women altogether, but others marginalised their contribution – during or after their lifetime – painting modernism as a man’s game.
Redressing the balance
It is often said that we cannot rewrite history, but what we can do is question those narratives that become the mainstream accepted versions of history.
Compared to some women artists, Dismorr is a still somewhat recognisable name. Some of her contemporaries, such as Ethel Wright and Dorothy ‘Georges’ Banks disappeared from art history altogether. Although we have focussed on Dismorr today, ‘Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries’ tells the story of a generation of pioneering, creative women – a network of gifted women modernists whose history has remained hidden.