On 21 November, ten students and I went along to Modern 2 in Edinburgh to see the exhibition, Modern Scottish Women Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965. It struck us that most of the artists on show were unknown to us. This is hardly surprising given the difficulties these artists faced as women. Many had to give up their career to look after children (if, indeed, they survived childbirth), pander to their husbands or deal with illness in the family.
It for granted that we can study and exhibit. It has not always been so. Women were not encouraged to go to Art College until the mid- 1800’s and it was not until late in that century that it was considered relatively common.
Cecille Walton talked of ‘the tragedy that attends so often the attempt to reconcile career and domestic life.’ Her own career came to an end when her artist husband divorced her leaving her as sole carer for their two sons, thus necessitating a series of office jobs. Those that carried on painting and sculpting had some success, but still did not make it into the history books.
Improvements in art education in the late nineteenth century did mean that more women were able to attend Art College. Like the men, they were from fairly wealthy families, as student grants did not come in till 1945 (only to be taken away again). In 1885, Glasgow School of Art employed its first female lecturer. In those days, and until fairly recently, you were not considered a successful artist unless you had a lecturing job. However, if a woman married she had to leave her post as she was not seen as dedicated enough. The marriage bar was lifted from these posts in 1945.
We were surprised to see so many portraits and figure paintings/ sculptures in the exhibition. There was considered to be a hierarchy of subjects, of which figure painting was at the top. Next came sculpture, a manly art. Below this came still- life and landscape, followed by flower painting and then applied arts. Previously women were expected to make work at the lower end of the hierarchy. Many of the students attending the study visit had been doing life drawing for their assignments. We learned that earlier female students, previously banned from the life class, were later allowed to draw from a partially clothed figure. Men and women were segregated and women did not draw men. Many made their way to Paris where the educational establishments were more liberal. Painting figures for women in Scotland was quite bold, nude ones even more so. When Joan Eardley painted a male nude in 1955 it caused a scandal.
There were a number of female sculptors in the show, working to commission, including for large scale war memorials.
It was interesting to find out about the history of the exhibiting societies. The Scottish Society of Women Artists was set up in 1924 and gave women a platform to exhibit, away from the prejudice that dominated in the other societies- it was 1944 before a woman became the first academician. Unbelievably, the Scottish Art Club and the Glasgow Art Club only opened their doors to women in the 1980s! The Society of Women Artists became unnecessary as women became more fully integrated and was dismantled in 1990.
After a thorough look at the exhibition we discussed the various themes in the show. It was agreed that the quality of the work was every bit as high as that of the better known male artists of the day. Many students found the women’s stories fascinating and discussed how much things had changed since then, but also how some of the same struggles persist today. It was inspirational to find out about women artists who had disappeared into the mists of history and how they paved the way for future generations of female art students.
To finish, I will quote Mary Armour when she arrived for her first day at Glasgow School of Art in 1920. ‘I was so excited and nervous and carrying so much that I got stuck in Rennie Mackintosh’s swinging door- my advice to any young woman walking through that door today: it will not be easy.’
What do you think?