Aus­tralian women’s con­tri­bu­tion to the French arts scene dur­ing the 1920s is com­ing back into the light, writes Annabel Abbs

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - 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).


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