Modern Scottish Women

Modern Two: Until June 26th

‘Modern Scottish Women’ is an exhibition that focuses on the art crafted by often neglected, but nonetheless highly inspired, female hands. Focusing on the mediums of painting and sculpture, the collection covers 80 years; points of demarcation being 1885, when Fra Newbery ascended to the position of Director in the Glasgow School of Art, to 1965, the year that Anne Redpath died. The choice of this time period is ultimately rather sensitive, reflecting an intense period of flux in the Scottish art scene, due at least in part to the rapidly increasing number of women who chose to practise.

Though the common denominator of this exhibition is clearly the female artist, some of the most interesting works on display show men. There is particularly fascinating history to ‘Neil Munro’, a depiction of the eponymic Scottish journalist in sultry blacks and reds, by the artist Stansmore Dean Stephenson. Speaking in 1900, one contemporary critic said of it: “there was a strength and a resolve about the quiet coloured portrait, which suggests a masculine hand”. It seems reasonable to hypothesise that a gender neutral given name aided the reception of her work. Although unfair, this is also somewhat humorous. She had no need to fashion a disguise, but rather could hide in the one society had created for her.

Another piece on display, perhaps more pronounced but no less culturally subversive, is ‘Sleeping Nude’ painted in 1955 by Joan Eardley. Her subject appears scrawny but delicate, and the contrast of his pale skin to the greys around him emphasises a frailty to the human form.

The slight bend in his legs, suggesting an almost foetal position, further demonstrates his vulnerability. Being the first known male nude to be painted by a woman, the implications of this painting were wide. Speaking as the voice of society, art critic Christopher Andreae has said “it was almost bound to be read as an assault on acceptable convention”. There is an almost astounding attention to detail in the male shown in the painting, which also lends a certain intimacy. Without doubt, Eardley’s gaze is almost palpable in the scene, and the nakedness of her subject emphasises that she has overturned a well established power relationship between artist and nude.

This exhibition raises an interesting question about the position of Scottish women in art. By 1965, the final year covered in this collection, Scottish art schools accepted both men and women. Theoretically then, females have had the same opportunities to train and practise as their male counterparts for several decades. Yet, the curator has affectionately nicknamed this “the Who Knew? show of 2015” because so many of the artists on display are unfamiliar. Some of the work on display here is simply inspiring, and it is a great shame that recognition up to this point has not been wider. The collection is more than fascinating, it is purposeful, and highlights a body of work that previously has been overlooked and underappreciated.

This exhibition, carefully put together with a fascinating collection of work, could be considered a call to arms then; the art world should strive to reach a place where women are recognised for their achievements, rather than their gender.

Image: National Galleries (“Self Portrait” by Doris Zinkeisen)

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