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This month at The Fine Art Society in London, several exhibitions on view (through February 28) focus on women artists. In the first gallery of the five-floor Mayfair space is a retrospective of the painter Gluck (1895-1978). Going by one name only, the artist was wildly independent, refusing to be defined by her gender—in the presentation of her work and in her individual style.
As a companion to that show, curator Sara Terzi put together “Women Artists: A Conversation,” where she asked 12 contemporary artists to respond to Gluck’s legacy. Terzi spoke with Whitewall about Gluck’s trailblazing career and questioning the significance of all-woman shows.
WHITEWALL: You said that one thing that initially struck you about the artist Gluck, was that she would only answer to a single name, and insisted on solo shows only from 1926-1973. How unique was that—for any artist—during that time?
SARA TERZI: It wasn’t unusual at all if you were a male artist, but for a woman it was very unusual. In the ‘20s and ‘30s in particular, just a handful of women artists would have shown their work in solo exhibitions. Another thing that is remarkable about Gluck is that she didn’t want to be associated with any movement or school. She strongly believed that really mattered was the work itself, not the gender of the artist. She refused in that sense to conform to any societal expectation of “womanly behavior.”
WW: What about her work strikes you when looking at it today?
ST: I love the strength that comes out of her paintings; I think it’s reflective of her character. She painted things that were of great personal significance with great frankness, from the beautiful portrait of her and her lover, Nesta, painted at the height of their relationship (Medallion, 1937), to the metaphorical image of a decomposing fish in one of her last paintings (Rage, rage against the dying of the light, 1970-73). She famously said: “It used to annoy me when I was younger to be told continually how ‘original’ I was. What is there so original in just being oneself and speaking one’s mind?”
Gluck was also concerned with how her paintings were displayed. She designed and patented an original, architectural frame that still holds her name. The “Gluck Frame” had a three-tiered design and was colored to match the wall on which it was hung. The effect was such that the paintings appear to be part of the wall, projecting out of it. She had a keen attention to detail and an exquisite, modern aesthetic.
WW: What was Gluck like personally? Did she socialize with artists or other women artists?
ST: She was a proud, rebellious, mercurial and sometimes obsessive woman. As The Fine Art Society prepared for what would be her last at the gallery, in 1973, Gluck was banned from the gallery because she was interfering too much with the set up of the show. She took a room at the hotel opposite and would peer from her window with binoculars, often phoning the Director with her criticism. At the same time, her stubbornness is what drove her to create her work as well as in her decade-long “paint war” against paint manufacturers to raise the standard of artists’ materials.
This cause put in her in touch with many artists of her time who shared the same problem, but she had already benefited from meeting with other artists from the beginning of her career. In 1918, when she was trying to break free from her family, Gluck went to Lamorna in Cornwall where she met the Newlyn School of painters. In her letters she wrote of her trepidation at meeting and receiving a critical appraisal from fellow artist Laura Knight, the first woman elected to the Royal Academy.
WW: Given that she refused to participate in group shows, why did you want to create a group exhibition alongside her work in The Fine Art Society show?
ST: The idea for this group show was born with the intent to draw a parallel between Gluck, as a woman artist exhibiting in the gallery in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the contemporary art scene. Much has changed in the past century and, rather than selecting a single artist, it felt only fair to present a cross-section of the variety of work created by women artists today. I do believe that if Gluck were alive today, she would probably refuse to take part in the show!
WW: Why did you want to show a generous range of activity and experience? How did you go about selecting the 12 artists?
ST: I think it’s important to show that women artists are not afraid to explore a wide variety of genres and that they are doing so through different mediums and styles. By showing paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and installations, ranging from the figurative to the abstract, the hope is that the public will perceive that there is no typically “female” style.
Driven by this idea, I started looking at the practice of many different artists and found there to be so many talented women out there! From more established artists to emerging talents, it has been an exciting process to see this group of artists coming together.
WW: Were any of the artists familiar with Gluck’s work?
ST: Some of the artists were very familiar with Gluck, either having used her paintings as a source of inspiration, having come across her work after seeing it on the iconic Virago Press cover of lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, or having read about the woman who fought for better paint standards. Others had not heard of Gluck, but immediately responded to her work and compelling story, beautifully written in a biography by Diana Souhami which delves into the highs and lows of Gluck’s life.
WW: In putting together the show, you posed the question on the significance of staging an all-female show. After putting it together, do you feel like you’ve arrived closer to an answer?
ST: Yes, despite the increased awareness of the gender gap in both the art world and society more broadly, I think it is still important today to present a show that highlights the position of women in the art word. Between the waves of feminism and ensuing backlashes, the debate about affirmative action versus allowing the lack of representation of women artists to continue keeps recurring. I hope that—in a not too distant future—this debate will become irrelevant.
WW: Do any of the artists in the show have an opinion on the matter, like Gluck clearly did?
ST: As a woman, it’s impossible to avoid, as even not taking a stand is a statement of intention. What matters is that, outspoken or not, these artists should not be considered any differently because of their gender. Although there is no longer a need to defy the use of “prefix, suffix or quote,” as Gluck famously did, there is still a lot of work to be done.
WW: There is no standard for a “woman” artist, but are there sometimes unfair expectations of female artists? Art made by women is often assumed to be biographical, for instance.
ST: Definitely, and it’s a misguided idea, which has proved difficult to change. There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from your own life, as many artists of all genders do, but that doesn’t mean that all women produce autobiographical work, or that autobiographical work is inherently feminine. No one would suggest that all art made by men is abstract, after all.