Galleries: Understanding the scope of female artistic talent

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Sarah Urwin Jones Urwin Jones

The festival season might not be the same this year, but there’s a festival whiff everywhere in Edinburgh, from the giant Hello flags flying from the city’s flagpole to the International Festival’s television “opening” case to the Book Festival’s online author talks. There are also festival shows if you know where to look, as if the spirit of what ought to be is still there. So it was at the Scottish Gallery, or Aitken Dott, when it was established in 1842, that he chose to break out of lockdown in style and put on his pre-planned art festival exhibition, along with an online series of short artist talks and activities, a celebratory microcosm of what might have been, citywide, by appointment only in these days.

Of course, as a commercial gallery, which is basically a retail store that makes money from the art on display and does not rely on public funds, it is simpler to do this. But, as illustrated by this all-female version of their Modern Masters collection, which features the artists they’ve exhibited over the past century or so, the Scottish Gallery still has a fine historical pedigree of artists. For those who saved their pennies during the closing, from Joan Eardley to Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, and all the richer for it, alongside much less established ones, there are the normal tantalizing big names of the mid-century here.

Indeed, that is the crux of this exhibition, that, over the years, women artists have been overlooked, discarded as amateurs who were allowed to dabble in the world of art, just like the few who made it as composers before they got married and fell into obscurity. Until the 20th century, she was a remarkable woman who, for the sake of her art, could resist a future husband financially or socially, let alone her personal inclinations.

But, as the Scottish Gallery is fond of pointing out, not everyone in the art world dismissed or belittled women artists, although this was an institutional trait, from art schools to the galleries themselves. Even though there may have been some, the Scottish Gallery’s own books display the first female exhibitor in 1903, landscape painter Mary G.W. Wilson, and although no one from the 19th and 20th centuries emerges unsullied, there is a substantial list here.

There is ‘A Wave,’ a great, energetic oil painted on a board in the middle of a storm on an anonymous night in Catterline by Joan Eardley from her Catterline time. Here, too, are elements from her time in Glasgow of the cityscape in pastels, characteristic of her distinctive blocking and color blurring.

In the work of Lilian Neilson, who joined Joan Eardley in her studio in the small village of Aberdeenshire and stayed on after her friend died, Catterline also appears; and then there are the calm, reflective seascapes of Hannah Mooney, a recent Glasgow School of Art graduate and perhaps the show’s youngest artist.

Elsewhere, Kate Downie’s industrial bridgescapes, the idiosyncratic dreams of Pat Douthwaite and her female shapes, and Victoria Crowe’s trees and reflective studies. With an early oil painting of St. Ives and the later and continuing abstractions, geometries and forms that would characterize her career, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, whose modernist work developed over her life, is represented here.

Moving on are Elizabeth Blackadder’s ink wash paintings, pastel cats, and distinctive botanical watercolors, the vitality and humor of the still life watercolors and prints of Emily Sutton, and Angie Lewin’s sleek observation. Recent works by Barbara Balmer, Anne Redpath, Bet Low, Frances Walker, Mardi Barrie and many others have been included. In the comprehensive sequence of 10-minute video tutorials, some are there to be found, others rediscovered, others you can read about in online Zoom Chats or hear about.

Of course, this exhibition is the view from a gallery and does not appear to be an exhaustive survey, but for that it is no less significant. The characters and stories of women artists behind many of these works, especially those from the middle of the century, are important here: women artists who worked in an atmosphere where women were still not equal to men in society and yet achieved artistic triumphs

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