A Room of One’s Own – Creating a Feminist Space

The genesis of Australia’s feminist art movement can be traced back to the 1970s, as one of its founders, art historian Janine Burke, recounts in Issue 49.

n 1974, I was an undergraduate art history student at Melbourne University. Lynne Cook was a year ahead of me. We were both frustrated by the lack of women artists mentioned in our courses. Two key texts framed our thinking.

One was the 1971 essay by American art historian Linda Nochlin, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?. Nochlin argued that the expectations against women seriously pursuing art, the restrictions on educating women as artists, and ‘the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based’ systematically precluded the emergence of great women artists.

The other was John Berger’s 1972 book, Ways of Seeing. Berger took the provocative step of placing images of women culled from advertising, popular culture and soft porn alongside paintings by Modigliani, Picasso and Rubens, making the argument that high art did not preclude sexism.

Those texts marked one of the biggest shifts that the discipline of art history had encountered, the intervention of feminism.

With Kiffy Rubbo, the inspiring director of Melbourne University’s George Paton Gallery, we decided to curate an exhibition. ‘A Room of One’s Own: Three Women Artists’, which opened in April 1974, was one of Australia’s first feminist art shows. It comprised Lesley Dumbrell, Julie Irving and Ann Newmarch.

Kiffy taught us, offering us exactly the kind of emphasis – Australian, contemporary, stimulating – that we sought but were not finding in some of our art history courses. She made curating seem like an adventure – one that women could share.

The title was Kiffy’s choice, taken from Virginia Woolf’s 1929 benchmark essay about women’s creativity and the space, the actual physical environment that is required in order for creativity to flourish. A space that, as Woolf points out, history has done its utmost to deny.

Our next venture, ‘Australian Women Artists 1840–1940’ was the daughter of ‘A Room of One’s Own’. After Kiffy had appointed me the show’s curator, I travelled around the country, scouring art museums, regional galleries and private collections, often finding major works hidden away and rarely on view. The exhibition opened at the George Paton Gallery in September 1975 before touring to the Art Gallery of NSW, Newcastle Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of South Australia. While I was interested in teasing out notions of  ‘feminine sensibility’ – elements of either content or form that could identify a work as produced by a woman – my primary concern was to select notable works by artists many of whom were unknown.

Perhaps the most heartening response I received was from women artists who told me, ‘Now I see I have a history’.

My research shifted my own practice. I’d been a formalist critic. Art & Culture (1961), Clement Greenberg’s collection of essays, was my Bible. But now it seemed limited – as issues about gender, identity, art world and sexual politics, as well as chronic historic denial, challenged my approach.

In 1975, another significant change took place. The catalyst for the formation of the Women’s Art Movement in Melbourne was the visit of New York critic Lucy Lippard. Lippard, who had made her name writing about Pop Art and Minimalism, had committed herself to the cause of women’s art. As part of her Melbourne visit, she was scheduled to give a talk at the George Paton Gallery, which was becoming the Melbourne contact for all things contemporary in art, whether local, national or international.

Kiffy asked Lesley Dumbrell to escort Lippard to several artists’ studios, including those of Jenny Watson and Erica McGilchrist. Lesley recalled, ‘Lucy was saying, ‘You know all these women artists. Why don’t you interact with them more? This is absurd. Things will only change if you stick together.’

After discussions with Erica, Lesley decided to start a women’s art network. While encouraging the plan, Kiffy and assistant director Meredith Rogers felt that the initiative must come from the artists themselves.

The first meeting of the Women’s Art Register at the George Paton in September 1975 was a revelation. Elizabeth Gower recalls it was ‘empowering’ to see ‘a whole room full of women artists – older women like Dawn Sime, Ailsa O’Connor and Isabel Davies, women you were curious about – as well as younger women.’ The meeting was contextualised by ‘Australian Women Artists’, hanging on the walls.

All these endeavours were enactments of feminist-led practice. Kiffy founded a space, in which female and male artists, writers and curators could function equally, be nurtured, quickened and encouraged. It was an era when – briefly – history was on the side of women artists. Their work was seen. Their voices were heard. The pent-up rage of centuries of repression and denial flooded out, galvanising society globally.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019

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