MISSING IN PARIS
Australian women’s contribution to the French arts scene during the 1920s is coming back into the light, writes Annabel Abbs
To be in Paris between 1900 and 1930 was to be at the very heart of an artistic revolution. By the 20s what had started as an essentially painterly rebellion had spread to all art forms, from fashion design to literature, music, dance and film, resulting in a generation of artistic experimenters famously described by Gertrude Stein (the doyenne of the Parisian avant-garde) as “the lost generation”.
Anyone who has seen Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris knows the iconic names: Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Josephine Baker and Man Ray, to name but a few. Dancers, musicians, writers and artists descended on Paris in droves. Why? Because Paris offered an unrivalled opportunity for freedom and experimentation. The disenchanted and dispossessed, the bored and eccentric — creative people from across the world came to Paris to enjoy the exuberant cafe life of Montparnasse, to dismantle the traditions of the past, to live a richer and more liberated artistic life.
Americans fled draconian prohibition laws, Italians and Irish escaped the punitive rule of the Catholic Church, and Britons turned their backs on choking Victorian morality. As the modernist composer Virgil Thomson said, France was more than just another country, “it was a miracle spot like ancient Greece”.
Australian artists were no different in their desire for freedom. The early 20th century saw a surge in departures, a haemorrhaging of artistic talent. Australia was a notoriously conservative country, famously described by artist Stella Bowen as a “queer little backwater of intellectual timidity”. This sentiment was echoed by painter Grace Crowley, who later recalled that her paintings had been considered “strange” and “not generally understood” in her native Adelaide. But there was something else that drove Australian artists away. As early as 1903, the poet and novelist Louise Mack articulated this as an “intolerable ennui, a sense of emptiness and discontent, a longing for something large and full … it is our remoteness that pains us”. The feeling was reiterated by writer Alan Moorehead as “a nagging feeling that something was missing”.
While Paris was undoubtedly the epicentre of all creative life for Americans, Australians were more selective in their choice of city. In his book Lusting for London, Peter Morton explains that sculptors often headed to Rome, musicians to Berlin, singers to Milan and writers almost exclusively to London. In Australia, he says, it was very hard for writers to make a living. London had the advantage of familiarity — from its language to its network of family connections that could provide impoverished writers with somewhere to stay. Australian painters, however, favoured Paris.
Artists had been making the gruelling pilgrimage from Australia to Paris long before the 20s. Half were female: Ethel Carrick Fox, Gladys Reynell, Bessie Davidson, Margaret Preston, Violet Teague, Ethel Spowers, Eveline Syme and Hilda Rix Nicholas were among those who had paved the way. Many of these had already established themselves as part of the Paris landscape and were still there in the 20s. Mary Mercer ran away from home aged 17 specifically to join the bohemians living in Montparnasse. She reputedly mixed with Picasso and Chagall, before working as an assistant to Andre Lhote. Meanwhile, Bessie Gibson and Agnes Goodsir exhibited regularly at several of the most prestigious Paris salons.
But of the 70-odd Australian artists who made Paris their home during this period, Bowen is the only one who regularly makes an appearance in accounts and memoirs of the time. She arrived in London in 1918 determined to study art with Walter Sickert. Serendipitously, she found a flat next door to modernist poet Ezra Pound. He introduced her to TS Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Ford Madox Ford — who became her partner for the next decade.
When the couple moved to Paris in 1922, it was Bowen’s relationship with Ford that enabled her to rub shoulders with some of Paris’s most notorious personalities: Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Picasso and Matisse. Ford was hugely influential, having founded one of Paris’s most important modernist publications, The Transatlantic Review. Thanks to Ford, Bowen mingled at the requisite salons, attended the right supper parties and painted Stein and Eliot, thereby giving her a permanent place in any history of “the Crazy Years”.
But Bowen was not the most talented Australian in Paris. In 1926 three women risked the opprobrium of their families by sailing for France. Anne Dangar, Dorrit Black and Crowley had studied art in Sydney, where Dangar became obsessed by the work of Cezanne. They enrolled at the celebrated Academie Julian, where they studied for two years with Lhote. When the academie closed for the summer, they enrolled in summer schools in the French countryside or travelled — complete with easel and palette — to other parts of Europe. When Crowley had learned all she could from the academie, she got in touch with leading cubist painter Albert Gleizes for private lessons.
This tenacious industriousness may explain why no Australian artist (except Bowen) appears in Arlen Hansen’s definitive Expatriate Paris with its exhaustive index of 773 artists who inhabited the city then. These were ambitious and driven women, prepared to put their artistic careers before family, duty and reputation. Simply making the voyage, particularly without a male escort, required courage. As Morton points out, the trials of travelling from Australia to Europe at this time — enduring weeks at sea, often in the company of rats and other undesirables — ensured that only the most determined made it. The cost was also prohibitive, leaving this pilgrimage to the resourceful or wealthy. The Atlantic crossing was considerably shorter, making it far more attractive for Americans than it could ever be for Australians.
It’s possible that women as determined as these had no intention of wasting precious time. Was it this drive and focus that kept them at their studies and away from the cafes and salons? A few years earlier, English artist Christopher Nevinson, (who also studied at the academie) complained that most artists in Paris were “swine, bohemians who slack about all day sitting in the Luxembourg gardens”.
Bowen later referred to this period in her life as “playtime”. The possibility that Australian artists were diligently honing their craft resonates with author and expert John Baxter, who points out that many of them did their best work in Paris.
But it’s also possible these women were kept out of accounts of the time (many of which were written by men) because of their gender. According to Tansy Curtin, curator at the Bendigo Art Gallery, which champions female painters of this period, “female Australian artists never received the same recognition as their male counterparts who were lauded on their return to Australia, where they often took on positions of authority in the art world”. As late as 1938 the artist Max Meldrum was asserting that women could never paint as well as men. Curtin also says that some of these female artists were simply not cutting-edge enough to make waves: “Their work was very accomplished but they didn’t follow any of the established ‘isms’ that could have propelled them into the limelight.”
While most male painters returned to Australia, many of the women chose to stay in France. Davidson and Goodsir never returned. Both were embraced by the French, who made them members of the esteemed Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Davidson, who exhibited alongside legendary names such as Tamara de Lempicka and Mary Cassatt, was also awarded the French Legion of Honour for her role in setting up several art societies and salons.
Some female artists returned and sank into obscurity. Rix Nicholas, for example, retired to a farm in rural NSW. At the other end of the spectrum, Black returned to Sydney and became the first woman to run an art gallery. And yet when she died 20 years later, her obituary said: “She has so consistently been artistically cold-shouldered and ignored since her return [from Paris] ... it is amazing how she maintained the courage to fight on against so much prejudice.”
Dangar received the same treatment on her return home. Not prepared to bow to the Australian art establishment, she went back to Paris and became a highly regarded teacher who exhibited regularly and whose paintings were eagerly acquired by French collectors.
Cole Porter’s lyrics from his 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchmen included the lines: “You come to Paris, you come to play / You have a wonderful time, you go away”. Not so for the Australian artists. They may not appear in the numerous histories and memoirs of the time but that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of the extraordinary legacy of 20s Paris.
These predominantly female artists are now being rediscovered and recognised both in Australia and beyond. As Curtin says, “These exceptional women are beginning to enter the canon of Australian art, but they still haven’t received the recognition they deserve.”
is the author of The Joyce Girl, which tells the lost story of Lucia Joyce — dancer and daughter of James Joyce — in 1920s Paris (Hachette Australia, $32.99).
SOME RETURNING FEMALE ARTISTS SANK INTO OBSCURITY