‘MARY’S BLOOD NEVER FAILED ME’: Work by women in the Australian national collection

Natasha Bullock and Elspeth Pitt interrogate the collecting practices of the past and uncover how the National Gallery of Australia is reassessing its approach to collecting work by women artists.

A major focus of the National Gallery of Australia (the Gallery) is the acquisition of work by women artists for its collection. Although the Gallery is home to many outstanding works by women, a gender imbalance in the collection persists. There are several reasons for this. The European-American bedrock of the collection, while it might be the preeminent collection of its kind in Australia, has favoured a singular, male-dominated view of art history. Further, organising curatorial departments according to artistic media such as painting and sculpture, prints and drawings and photography has meant that materially fluid and experimental work, including early feminist art, has rarely been acquired in depth.

There has also been a discrepancy between what constitutes ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art. In the past, craft and textile practices, typically employed by women, were considered ‘low’ art and not acquired with the same rigour as the ‘high’ arts of painting and sculpture, historically associated with men. The Gallery’s future collecting will aim to redress imbalances such as these.

Elizabeth Gower ‘Then and now’ 1987 © Elizabeth Gower

Transforming established traditions and collections requires extensive research and relationship building with artists and artists’ estates. It is through such endeavours that the Gallery recently acquired rare works by the Adelaide-born artist Frances (Budden) Phoenix, a feminist artist known for her textile assemblages and needlework. Much of her work was destroyed by fire in the early 1980s, although several examples including the Gallery’s acquisitions were unearthed in her estate.

Central to Phoenix’s practice is needlework, a traditional form of ‘women’s work’ that she reclaimed, subverting its prettiness by embedding political refrains within it. The proclamation ‘Get your abortion laws off our bodies’, for example, is delicately picked out in a doily of the same title, made in 1980, alongside a woman defiantly raising her fist. Another work acquired by the Gallery, the textile assemblage Mary’s blood never failed me c 1977 was first exhibited in 1977 at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide in The Women’s Show, one of the first exhibitions of women’s art to be held in Australia.

In the 1970s, Phoenix worked as an assistant on North American artist Judy Chicago’s renowned installation The dinner party 1974–79. She became sceptical of Chicago’s form of ‘goddess worship’ feminism and, in an act of protest, roughly stitched the words ‘No goddesses, no mistresses’ on a piece of cloth that she concealed within the installation. Chicago is alleged to have later discovered Phoenix’s embroidery and to have cut its corner in anger.

Mazie Karen Turner ‘Everyday life in the modern world, falling into TV’ c. 1982 © the estate of the artist

Karen Mazie Turner made vast ‘blueprints’ or cyanotypes on the roof of her Bondi flat. The most significant of these, Everyday life in the modern world, falling into TV c 1982 refers to her experience of being a new mother and having to contend with the great scatter of children’s toys and paraphernalia. In Turner’s art, ‘scatter’ becomes the subject, and, in this way, it resonates with Elizabeth Gower’s Found images paintings, including Then and now 1987, in which ostensibly abstract marks are slowly revealed as the jittery outlines of milk bottles, dolls and laundry detergent.

Women artists are often overshadowed by their male companions. Margaret Worth’s work was sometimes eclipsed by that of her first husband, the abstract painter Sydney Ball. A former student of Ball’s at the South Australian School of Art in the 1960s, it is generally assumed that Worth adopted the language of hard-edge abstraction from Ball directly, but this is not the complete story. Art historian and curator Mary Eagle suggests that Ball’s and Worth’s practices evolved more collaboratively, while Worth maintains that her most influential teacher was the artist Dora Chapman. This admission is fascinating since Chapman encouraged Worth to draw with her eyes closed in order to ‘feel’ her line. The rhythmic, weightless qualities of Worth’s art arguably descend from this instruction.

Dora Chapman ‘Sunflower.’ 1969 © Dora Chapman/Copyright Agency and Margaret Worth ‘Samsara 13’ 1968

Works are acquired for the national collection both for their individual strengths and for the ways they expand our understanding of art history. Conceptual art, which came to prominence in the 1960s, valued ideas over materials and forever changed how art was able to be made and imagined. Agatha Gothe-Snape explores and interrogates this legacy in wildly ambitious works that feature fleeting gestures, poetry and performance. Three physical doorways, one conceptual wedge and a gentle breeze 2017 is an ephemeral installation fabricated anew each time it is shown. Echoing the simplicity of a theatre set, the work conjures the possibility of entrances and exits, inviting the viewer through closed, partially ajar and open doorways.

All histories are written from particular viewpoints. The mandate of the National Gallery of Australia is to enrich the national collection with exceptional works that challenge established narratives and represent the diversity and complexity of art.

Natasha Bullock is Assistant Director, Curatorial and Exhibitions, National Gallery of Australia.

Elspeth Pitt is Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture (20, 21C), National Gallery of Australia.

Know My Name is a defining moment in the history of the National Gallery. With your help, this initiative will deliver a vibrant national program of exhibitions, artistic commissions, education initiatives and creative collaborations that celebrate the diversity and creativity of Australian women artists. Donations at all levels are welcome and bring us ever closer to realising our ambitions.
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Home to Australia's national collection of visual arts.

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National Gallery of Australia

National Gallery of Australia

Home to Australia's national collection of visual arts.

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