At the Guardian, Germaine Greer reports that the Fitzwilliam’s “Sargent, Sikert & Spencer” exhibition offers a pretty good lesson in how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history.
“The museum has just hung a show of paintings by John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer from its collection, and I find myself wishing they hadn’t. For the first time, the museum seems to me provincial rather than perfect. Many of the works are unapologetically minor; but even the ones that are not are less significant than they should be, if they are to dwell on the same plane as the rest of the collection. Sargent was grotesquely successful in his own time, as portrait painters tend to be once they have established a popular formula – but he is not a painter we need to see much of now. He may have fancied himself as a great landscape painter seduced from his true bent by filthy lucre. If he did, the examples shown here prove he was wrong….
“By way of justifying the yoking together of these three artists, rather too much is made of the slender connections between them – which boils down to little more than that they occasionally treated similar themes. Sargent had no more acrimonious critic than Sickert, and Spencer learned nothing from either of them. Of the women who were Sickert’s faithful allies, only Thérèse Lessore makes the grade. The portrait of Sickert in coloured chalks and watercolour that Lessore made in 1919, eight years before she became the painter’s third wife, is included as a curiosity. Sylvia Gosse was the most important of the dozen or so women who worked on Sickert’s prints, copying on to his canvases the details of the photographs he used later in his career. Gosse also lent him money, bought his pictures, nursed his first wife in her terminal illness and raised a fund for him in old age. The Fitzwilliam was left a still life by Gosse in 1991 (the museum has 13 of her prints, but she was allowed no space in this exhibition).
It takes a sharp eye to detect Spencer’s faithful wife Hilda Carline as the diminutive grey statue in his repulsive pseudo-allegory, ‘Love on the Moor,’ completed after her death. Carline was a serious artist, who worked as steadily as she could, alongside raising two daughters, the misery and turmoil of being married to Spencer, a mental breakdown and failed treatment for breast cancer. The Fitzwilliam exhibition offers a pretty good object lesson in how women’s contribution is winnowed out of art history.
“Sargent, Sickert & Spencer,” curated by Jane Munro. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. Through April 5, 2010.