A teaching assignment took me to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool last Friday. I took advantage of the visit to check out the exhibitions on offer. The Rise of Women Artists seemed a competently curated show with familiar and not so well known names. Chronologically, we move from renaissance women painters like Livia Fontana right up to the age of video. I can't really give a comprehensive overview: there was neither catalogue nor free literature, though the exhibition was free. Relying on my hastily scribbled notes, I see the following names. Livia Fontana, Elizabetta Sirani, Elizabeth Vigée- Lebrun, Rosalba Carriera, Rosa Bonheur. Maybe not as well known are such monikers as Sophie Anderson (French Pre-Raphaelite painter), Marianne Stokes (wife of the famous aesthete and critic, Adrian Stokes), Annie Louisa Swynnerton (another PRB woman whose Sense of Sight is on the posters for the show), Elizabeth Forbes (a Canadian who portrayed children) and Dame Laura Knight who is usually lumped under the "English Impressionist school". That's not a full list by any means.
My memory has gone blank on most of the art present, but I do have Sirani's wonderful red-chalk Self-Portrait- above- in my mind's eye. Sirani, a woman painter from 17th century Bologna, was trained by the temperamental Guido Reni- she has the honour of lying next to Reni's place of rest in Bologna. Her pictures, mainly of religious subjects and self-portraits, have a winning charm about them which ensured her posthumous reputation. Seeing the red-chalk sheet was like making the acquaintance of somebody after several years. I last saw this drawing in an exhibition of drawings entitled Mantegna To Rubens, back at the end of the 1990s. The drawing seems as fresh to me today as it did then. I love the way Sirani drew a frame around her self-image- it almost conveys the idea of the drawing as a mirror. The head is exquisitely drawn, not in profile but three-quarter view, adding to the verisimilitude of the work.
It would be nice to believe her biographer Malvasia who said that some unknown assassin paid a servant to poison her; that romantic anecdote would sit well with the melancholy look out of the drawing. But as the catalogue of the previous exhibition points out, this is almost certainly apocryphal. Elizabetta is more likely to have died of a bleeding stomach ulcer brought on by overwork. When her father became severely ill with gout, Elizabetta had to run the whole workshop. Her output was substantial- over 200 works.
On to the next exhibition, Bridget Riley: Flashback. Bridget Riley wouldn't really have fitted into the women artists show. She's too famous and canonical, although it's an all male modernist canon. Her art is difficult to slot into theoretical speculations about gender or the academy- I suspect she prefers it that way. I've never really "got" Riley and op-art. It's clever; it provides a forum for discussing the 1960s, but so-what? Therein lies the problem, I think. For me the 1960s will always be associated with music, rock and jazz, electronic avant-garde. If I want modernist abstraction from this period, I'll listen to some Miles Davis or Coltrane- I don't really see a visual equivalent to that wonderful explosion of creative noise. I can appreciate Riley's art on some levels, if I think about colour as a subject, but I can't really engage with it either intellectually or emotionally. It can be very tough on the eyes too; there's a warning for migraine sufferers on the door of the exhibition. No, when it comes to down to it, for me it's just a cross between optical illusion puzzles and bathroom tiles.