Modern Australian Women Artists: The Andrée Harkness Collection.
Published by Museum Victoria Publishing
246pp, $99.95, ISBN 978-0-646-81756-9
This book celebrates a major collection of modern Australian women's art assembled by a passionate collector, the late Andrée Harkness, and presented for the first time to the public a couple of years ago at an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
It is written by Dr Anne Gray, for many years Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, with contributions on women printmakers by Caroline Jordan and on women potters by Juliana Hooper. It is a lavish production and boasts being "the most comprehensive book available on modern Australian women artists" and representing some of Australia's most important women artists working between the 1870s and the 1960s.
In all, there are 67 Australian women artists who are represented by 145 works in the book with a rollcall of familiar names including Jessie Traill, Joy Hester, Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith, Adelaide Perry, Ethel Carrick Fox, Dora Meeson, Clarice Beckett, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Thea Proctor, Dorrit Black, Ethel Spowers and Janet Cumbrae-Stewart. It would be also true to say that most of the strongest and more interesting works in the collection are by some of the less well-known artists.
Whereas 40 years ago, it could have been said that Australian women modernist artists were frequently neglected and overlooked, arguably today there are more publications and exhibitions devoted to Australian women artists from this period than to male artists. Apart from the question of historical redress, Australian women modernists were generally more interesting than their male counterpart contemporaries. Reasons for this are varied - most of the women artists in this book came from the 'middle classes' and had a degree of financial independence through inheritance or marriage and were prepared to indulge in modernist pursuits without too much concern for their economic viability. Many of the blokes, who made art for a living, clung to the more lucrative academic styles that in retrospect were quite dull. A number of male modernists could not afford to give up their day job and their art became a weekend occupation and consequently suffered.
Once the sins of historical omission have been righted and the once neglected women restored to a position of deserved prominence, questions of ranking of women artists come to the fore. Is it possible that Margaret Preston may be a tiny bit over-promoted, while others including Bessie Davidson, Dora Meeson and the wonderful Jessie Traill are insufficiently appreciated? The visual evidence presented in this book would seem to argue for such a re-evaluation.
When it comes to 20th century printmaking in Australia, particularly in the period between the wars, women printmakers such as Jessie Traill, Dorrit Black, Thea Proctor, Christian Waller, Ethel Spowers, Eveline Syme and of course Margaret Preston, easily outshone the male practitioners. It could be argued that neither printmaking nor modernism was particularly economically viable in this period and the men largely vacated the field to the female modernist printmakers.
Dr Gray observes, "Many of these women artists and their works are now well known, and have been [the] subject of at least one solo exhibition or monograph, group exhibition and publication." In her scholarly essay she explores the various networks of connections through which women artists thrived, enabling the 'sisterhood of the brush' to survive and shine in a sometimes hostile environment. She concludes, "This reflects their passion for their art, their professionalism, and their persistence - and to the nurturing of their family, friends and associates."
The beauty of a private art collection of this nature is that it flushes out works that have been rarely - if ever - exhibited and that are generally not known outside a small circle of experts. The authoritative texts give the publication a standing, however higher production standards could have been achieved with better quality reproductions and a proof editor. For example, it is embarrassing when Joy Hester's Seated nude is twice reproduced and is consistently misdated 1965, five years after she died.