Armchair Tourists: Two 'Furniture Portraits' by Expatriate South Australian Women Artists

By Downey, Georgina | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Armchair Tourists: Two 'Furniture Portraits' by Expatriate South Australian Women Artists


Downey, Georgina, Journal of Australian Studies


In the early years of the twentieth century expatriate Australian artists turned their gaze upon iconic sites of European cultural tourism. They painted the monuments and city squares of Paris and London and the quaint rural and fishing communities outside the modern metropoles. After trying for a coveted place 'on the line' at the Royal Academy or at the Paris Salons, they sent their 'picture-book' representations of Europe home to a respectful Australian audience. (1) The gaze of the obeisant colonial artist upon the historic landscapes and cities of Europe was epitomised in 1907 by Arthur Streeton's The Centre of Empire. In this view of Trafalgar Square, Lord Nelson atop his stone column is placed slightly left of centre, and is by far the tallest element in the picture. Moreover, the low angle of the composition forces the viewer to look up at the naval hero, reinforcing codes of imperial dominance and colonial submission. Streeton's choice of title encapsulates the Anglophilia of his generation of artists. The effect of this Anglophilia was that Australian artists traversed the oceans for training and recognition abroad before receiving it at home, and that Australian painting was measured by British tastes and values.

In contrast, expatriate Australian women artists explored intimate and humble subjects such as still life, or the 'interior view'. They were active in Europe in the same period and were as vulnerable to the powerful dream of Europe as the male artists, but travel and art study took most of the women to Paris rather than London. Once abroad, their gaze turned upon quite different subject matter to Streeton's. After a few nods toward iconic sites of European cultural tourism set in public space, (Dora Meeson's London Bridge, c 1917, and Bessie Davidson's St Mark's, Venice, c 1920s), Australian women artists in the modernist metropoles turned their backs on the grand views so beloved of cultural tourists, and explored domestic spaces in modes of visual representation that were althogether more private and avowedly modernist than those of their male colleagues. (2)

In order to develop both urban, sophisticated and emancipated lifestyles and to consolidate professional careers, expatriate Australian women artists in the early twentieth century left behind not only the provincial art teaching approaches of their home towns but also the dominant visual cultures of their respective countries. Visual culture also embraces a certain ordering of subject matter into higher and lower orders. In Australia, landscape occupied the highest place in the visual culture, closely followed by scenes of 'olde' Europe. A gap thus developed between the art of expatriates and that of those at 'home'. As a consequence, the domestic interiors produced by expatriate Adelaidians Stella Bowen, Bessie Davidson and Margaret Preston are doubly difficult to read and interpet. Their domestic interiors not only engage with private space rather than public symbol, but they are also occupy genres and traditions that were not well known in Australian artistic culture in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

In European art the domestic interior was a well-known subject and had once held a prominent place in the visual cultures of Holland, Spain and France. Depictions of everyday home life are known by three terms: vanitas, genre painting and still life. The suite of intimate side-lit interiors inhabited by women reading letters, painted by Jan Vermeer in the seventeenth century, are examplars of this kind of subject. Vermeer's reading women are especially notable since all three terms--vanitas, genre painting and still life--are applicable. In the late nineteenth century in European art the human figure began to disappear from the interior view, and with it went the moral, didactic or sentimental elements that tended to feature in representations of private, domestic space. If human figures were included, they were ascribed via composition, scale and pose an equivalent status to other objects in the room; hence the difference between a portrait of a person and the interior view with a figure. …

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