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Women at, and in, the NGA

Unity Paterson

When you think of women in art, you instinctively think of women as the subject, not as the creator. 

The noble history of the female nude, the ‘femme fatale’ or the oriental odalisque are hung on the walls of every institution around the globe, and rightly so – they are beautiful works of art. What gets sifted out of art history is the female creators, whose silent careers have fallen through the cracks of a very ‘loud’ profession.

The National Gallery of Australia is one institution tackling the challenge of balancing the concerns of a contemporary audience (equal representation, diversity) with the narrative of history. While their vast collection may contain a higher proportion of women artists, the ‘blockbuster paintings’ that draw crowds or represent important historical eras, are, due to the general gist of history, done by men. Curating a work is not just the act of putting a piece on a wall. By putting a work on display, the gallery is adding its own dialogue to the narrative of art history. The duty of the NGA, as a national collection, should be to bring to light the works of female artists which history has put away in a spare room to collect dust.

'Obstruction, Box Hill' by Jane Sutherland, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Image:

‘Obstruction, Box Hill’ by Jane Sutherland, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery. Image:

Historically, art was the domain of men because it was considered a craft and a profession. All the great renaissance artists (unless they have fooled us with pseudonyms!) are men. Fast forward to the 20th century when females painted but were never artists (excluding some daredevils!). For example, Jane Sutherland, who painted in studios alongside her friend Tom Roberts in the Heidelberg School, but struggled to paint ‘en plein eir’ because she was an unchaperoned woman. Her work was never popular in its day even though she was exceptionally talented, but has finally found rightful recognition in the collection of the NGA, represented as an equal.

The 20th century saw women beginning to enjoy careers as prominent artists. Lee Krasner was an artist of the Abstract Expressionist movement of New York in the 1950s, but history had forgotten her name in lieu of the celebrity identities of Rothko or her husband Jackson Pollock. Her works are now on display at the NGA, sitting in a suite of abstract colour and line alongside her husband’s.

Today, many of the most prominent and respected artists in the world are female. So while the NGA regularly exhibits contemporary female artists like the Australian Heather B. Swann, they should also keep up their efforts sifting through history.

Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas, NGA. Image:édaignées

Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas, NGA. Image:édaignées

We should celebrate female artists of the past today, because we have the power to. Go to the gallery to see Pollock and Monet and Lucien Freud. But be equally as excited to see Hilda Rix Nicholas, Patricia Piccinini and Tracey Moffatt – all incredible artists who also happen to be women.

These artists and many more are on display and in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.

Feature image: Hilda Rix Nicholas. Image: Wikipedia Commons.


Unity Paterson

Unity originally hails from Sydney, making the leap to Australia’s capital to study at The Australian National University in 2014. Finding herself in the midst of an Art History degree, Unity remembered that she also had to pursue some other passions in her spare time, which led her to HerCanberra. She believes that Canberra has a lot to offer, and can’t wait to keep exploring as this cosy city grows each day; her ultimate goal being to finally convince her inter-state friends that Canberra is way more than just Lake Burley Griffin and roundabouts. More about the Author