A Commentary Comparing Views and Comments
(Written without Prejudice)
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”
“How can you tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture?”
Khalo (Gorilla Girls)
While it could be said that since the beginnings of the Australian Feminist movement women have made inroads into professional acceptance, this may not be the case for generations of women artists. Depending on the sources that the general public may read, a vastly different view of a particular artist may be perceived, and resulting impressions swayed by the research position, personal biases, or emotive rhetoric by the writer. Although I believe it isn’t possible to completely omit a personal interpretive lens, as far as possible, I will endeavor to critically analyse the comments and conclusions made about artist Jane Sutherland in the texts reviewed in this commentary.
A Comparison of Texts
To indicate contrary statements regarding the same artist, I have chosen two texts that were written for divergent purposes within the same year. The Exhibition book Australian Impressionists is basically a keepsake that takes the reader through the paintings and artists highlighted by the event. The writers, like Frances Lindsay, are recognised in their fields and used references from a variety of sources to support their comments. Lindsay holds a BA (Fine Art) from Melbourne University and has worked for major galleries beginning in 1967. She has a broad range of curatorial experience and has been recognised by gallery directors for her analytical skills and ability to network with artists and patrons (daao 2012). Her text can be checked against a bibliography for accuracy and further information (Lindsay 2007, 346-347). This makes it easier for readers to check any of the remarks made by the author.
A woman of little importance is a critical piece in a major Melbourne newspaper. The tradition of arts criticism can be traced back to 18th century Britain and Europe and as far back as the first century BCE (Art Criticism 2016). The accuracy of such stories is not usually backed up by citations and/or references, so the reputation and education of the writer must be relied on. This leaves room for emotive and inaccurate comments that may not be supported by historic records or anecdotal evidence. After a broad search, no information about the writer was available to validate their qualifications, or suitability for writing an arts critique, additionally, their text did not contain any citations or references, so their statements were not substantiated.
Lindsay begins her text by telling the reader how the Sutherland paintings came into the NGV collection. She then goes on to provide some biographical background of the Sutherland family. By including their story with the conditions in Melbourne and the country in general, an historic context is provided. This is unlike the newspaper critique, which does not explore the development of Sutherland’s work, or her arts education along side male and female colleagues. Lindsay, on the other hand, explains the restrictive nature of life for a female artist during the latter 1800s, which is supported feminist and government historic records regarding the period.
Lindsay then goes on to explain the various methods that Sutherland, and other women artists, used to network and build a successful arts practice with studios in the centre of Melbourne. She describes Sutherland’s methods and style, and where she gained inspiration, indicating her use of new colours from Europe, as well as her dedication to research and enquiry for her art. In her various theses, researcher Juliette Peers also describes Sutherland’s practice in a similar manner. The newspaper article on the other hand describes Sutherland as a “minor painter” and, one of many female amateurs. Today, if any artist was to have two successful studios and students in the Melbourne CBD, I doubt if the word amateur would be applied to them by many, and yet in 2007 the writer felt comfortable labeling Sutherland in this manner.
The article went on in his text to say that by being included in the exhibition along with artists that she shared studio rooms and painted with, that Sutherland was being “upgraded” to a “pantheon” of male artists. As the only female artist amongst several men represented in the exhibition book, out of which Lindsay’s text has been drawn, the reader could describe this statement as emotive rhetoric.
Towards the end of the newspaper article the writer admits that the exhibition in which Sutherland’s work was included was not a broad survey of Australian Impressionism, and then returns to stating that Sutherland’s contribution was minor due to the small amount of her work, and the fact that she didn’t exhibit as much as the men. It is my opinion that they did not consider the reasons why Sutherland may have been either too busy teaching, too ill, or restricted by social convention at the time, to leave a larger body of work. One sentence mentioning illness does not cover the brief and unsubstantiated comments that went before it. Additionally, quantity does not reflect quality. There are artists in history whose work is now considered invaluable because of its scarcity.
Descriptions of Sutherland’s work quoted by Lindsay, are further attacked, being described as a type of ‘pleading’ by her to accept Sutherland as a professional artist. What isn’t mentioned is that Lindsay is often quoting journalists in The Argus, The Sun, and The Age newspaper archives. Lindsay also supported other statements with evidence of Sutherland’s involvement in The Buonarotti Club, The Field Naturalists Club, and artists’ societies like the Victorian Artists Society with male colleagues (Mead 2017, 145-147). The use of emotive language, lacking in evidence of factual support, further undermines any statements made in the newspaper article.
What became evident when contrasting these two texts texts, is the difference between and article written using emotive rhetoric motivated by the need to attract readers, raise a controversy, and sell newspapers; in contrast to a piece written to inform people interested in art who have attended an exhibition, and for value adding via gallery sales.
One more observation regarding the newspaper critique, is that although it can’t be stated conclusively, a comparison could be made between it and the title of Sheila Walsh’s book A Woman of Little Importance (1991) that tells a story about a strong willed woman who takes on the rich and influential. The use in the title is interesting because according to my research, the woman in the book and Sutherland have little in common. So, was the author attempting to juxtapose Sutherland with a lower class person conspiring to raise herself in society to a position above her ‘station’? If so, this is a type of class distinction is certainly not applicable to Jane Sutherland.
Despite the amount of work that has been done by the Feminist Movement, and women in general to bring equality and recognition to women artists and professionals in general, the rhetoric as evidenced in the newspaper article is still being published. Jane Sutherland is not alive today to defend herself, so in my opinion; this makes her an easy target. Being overlooked or omitted from the history of the development of art in Australia in the past can be understood from a contextual point of view. Australia was a male dominated culture, and some would argue that to some degree it still is, especially as women artists still only make up approximately 3-5% of the space in major galleries overseas and up to 34% in Australia (NMWA 2014). What should not be acceptable, however, is to undermine the value of significant women artists from any part of our history without any supporting evidence. I can understand the enthusiasm and supportive nature of Lindsay’s piece, as incorporating the work of Sutherland with her male colleagues in an exhibition, for her, may have been overdue. As a female artist practicing in the 21st century, I think that exhibiting the works of male and female artists together, and talking more about the lives and work of women artists like Sutherland is a positive step, and should be a regular rather than isolated event.
Bibliography and References:
A History of Art Criticism. 2016. Pearson PLC. https://catalogue.pearsoned.co.uk/assets/hip/gb/hip_gb_pearsonhighered/samplechapter/0205835945.pdf.
Daao. 2012. Frances Lindsay: Biography. Design & Art Australia. https://www.daao.org.au/bio/frances-lindsay/biography/.
Ellis, David. 2007. A Woman of Little Importance. http://www.theage.com.au/news/arts/a-woman-of-little-importance/2007/05/01/1177788141298.html.
Lindsay, Frances. 2007 Jane Sutherland: Thoroughly Australian Landscapes. Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.
Mead, Stephen. F. 2017. “The Search for Artistic Professionalism in Melbourne: the activities of the Buonarotti Club, 1883-1887.” The LaTrobe Journal 88 (December 2011). State Library of Victoria. http://latrobejournal.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal/issue/latrobe-88/t1-g-t16.html.
McFarlane, Jenny. 2006. “A Visionary Space”. Thesis for Doctor of Philosophy, ANU. Chapter 2 Transcendental faiths and young democracies: Jane Price and a vision for the young Australia. 46-70.
NMWA. 2014. Get the Facts. https://nmwa.org/advocate/get-facts.
Sanders, Anne and Jim Berryman. 2014. Visual Arts. Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia. http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0448b.htm.
Walsh, Sheila. 1991. A Woman of Little Importance. UK: Masquerade Books.