Exhibitions: Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

By Massie, Claudia | The Spectator, October 31, 2015 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965


Massie, Claudia, The Spectator


Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 26 June 2016

Modern Scottish Men , a new exhibition celebrating the achievements of male artists in the 20th century, opens next month in Edinburgh. Men only; no women. Bold! Only joking. That show would never happen today. How could it? Where would an exclusive, specifically male-only exhibition be tolerated these days? A women-only show, on the other hand, would be fair enough; we need to point out that the wee dears can paint too. And so we have Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 . Should we perhaps be feeling patronised, ladies?

The recent death of Brian Sewell has again thrown up his old allegations regarding the inferiority of women artists. 'Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness,' he said, and the art market would appear to support his position by stoutly refusing to take any great interest in work by female artists. A Georgia O'Keeffe sold for $44.4 million last year, which seems a lot until you consider that two years previously, the market had seen fit to lavish $118 million on a thoroughly bland Modigliani.

Examine the catalogue of most expensive artwork. In February this year, somebody paid nearly $300 million for one of Gauguin's Tahitian pieces. A length or two behind are Cézanne, Rothko, Picasso and Pollock. Painters of greater or lesser ability fall in below them but not one of them is female, until you reach O'Keeffe. It was not until 2004, more than 30 years since the bloated market began throwing millions at works by men, that something by a living female artist, Marlene Dumas, scraped $1 million at auction.

The market is only part of the story. It operates according to its own purpose, and is, evidently, no great arbiter of quality. What other mechanism would rank Barnett Newman above Titian? What is important, and what endures, is not the market value of an artwork but the work itself. The market merely skews perception among those who cannot be bothered to look for themselves.

John Berger summarised much of art history as crude objectification: 'Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.' Simplistic though this is, when female artists began exhibiting paintings of male nudes it was considered a shocking inversion of tradition. A fine nude, awkward and emaciated, by Joan Eardley in the Modern Scottish Women show illustrates this progression; she presents a real man, closer to Egon Schiele than the heroic torsos of the Renaissance.

Beyond painting men as objects, the feminist response was to turn the lens, or canvas, on themselves. Judy Chicago and Suzanne Lacy led the way in the 1970s with tortuous performances of writhing naked women smeared in blood and muck, accompanied by audio accounts of rape. …

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