Dressing for performance in art and photography.


Romain Mader, Ekaterina: Mariage à Loèche-les-Bains (Marriage in Leukerbad), 2012 © Romain Mader / ECAL. Image borrowed from Tate Modern catalogue for the exhibition.

Dr. Katerina Pantelides of the Courtauld Institute of Art examines ‘muse-wear’ in Tate Modern’s exhibition Art and Photography: Performing for the Camera (18th February – 12th June 2016)

Although it is not the primary theme of the exhibition, the question of what female artists wear to work is prevalent throughout Tate Modern’s Art and Photography: Performing for the Camera. Given that performance artists’ chief medium is the body, they have no need of the typical artist’s smock, which offers protection against messy materials and sets the artist apart in their profession. Rather, performance artists have used dress as means of more fully inhabiting their creations.

Harry Shunk and János Kender’s photographs of Yayoi Kusama’s 1968-9 Happenings, show the artist painting her signature large coloured dots onto the naked bodies of her performers. Imitating her, the performers also paint on each other. Kusama is clothed, but her bare-feet, dot-patterned legs and white trapeze-line, wide-sleeved frock with its swirling and speckled carp-scales, indicate that she is of the same ilk as her performers. It is as though she wishes to express that she identifies with them, by virtue of having a body, and a vibrant creative one at that. This staged subversion of the boundary between the creative artist’s body and those of her performers, fed directly into the Happenings’ self-definition as interventions in the fabric of everyday life, where participants were given a measure of creative agency.

Another performance artist, Carolee Schneeman, became entranced with the inanimate materials and found objects in the artist’s studio, and arranged them around her naked figure, so that she became a collage in motion. She relied upon black and white photography to document her experiments. The resulting ‘Transformations’ taken in the early 1970s, are striking for their violent juxtapositions of Schneeman’s soft flesh with the skeletal underside of a broken umbrella, or a great shard of found glass. The effect is simultaneously visceral and decorative. Threatening to cut her, and yet bisecting her face at a flattering angle, so that she appears coy and mysterious, Schneeman positions her materials so that they appear to control her image. As with Kusama, the creative artist’s body becomes part of the art work, and gives its creative materials agency.

One of the great self-mythologising performance artists, Francesca Woodman also makes a bold cameo in the Tate exhibition. In almost every photograph, Woodman conveys a sense of drama between her dressed body and the cloistered set. As the author as well as the subject of her photographs, Woodman spins the illusion that she has invited you to view her body and space as she sees it. The black and white nature of the photographs also smooths out environmental distractions, giving the pictures an aura of introspection. Only disruptions to the surface, such as streaks of sun-light and underdeveloped areas remind you that Woodman is not entirely in control; that she’s engaged in an ongoing dance with the light.

The surface textures of her clothes position her body in relation to her surroundings. In one interior composition, where she bends over dried autumn leaves, the undulating sweet-pea pattern of her broderie anglaise dress has a whispering quality and softly echoes the more turbulent movement inherent in the pile of leaves. In another image, taken in the woods, Woodman has fashioned herself gloves of eucalyptus bark. With her arms raised as erect as the surrounding pale trunks, her body is somewhat camouflaged. Nevertheless, the top of her bowed head, just visible in the photograph’s crop, and eerily reminiscent of a hanging-victim’s, brings her body and internal drama to the foreground, removing the image from the realm of the decorative.

Cumulatively, the female artists featured in the exhibition demonstrated a sense of wishing to inhabit their art-work, rather than standing apart from it masterfully. In the photographs that simultaneously document and re-stage their works, they are able to live out the contradiction of being synonymous with their materials and also drawing attention to their creative, performing bodies. Their efforts bring to light the alchemical property of dress for creative work, which does not only lend an artistic appearance, but feeds directly into the dynamics of creativity.

Article by Dr. Katerina Pantelides.


Reversing the Gaze with Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965.

Dorothy Johnstone, Anne Finlay, 1920. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections © Courtesy of Dr DA Sutherland and Lady JE Sutherland



















Nishana Sukul, PhD student at Edinburgh College of Art, investigates what lay behind an exhibition of art by Scottish women at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (7th November – 26th June 2016)

The artist Anne Finlay is the ideal poster girl for the Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965 exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Running from 7th November 2015 to 26th  June 2016, the exhibition is a survey of work by forty-five women artists, including Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and Joan Eardley. Visual conversations on issues such as the Marriage Bar legislation and the exclusion of women from life drawing classes pervade throughout. Imposing and commanding, Dorothy Johnson’s portrait of Finlay holds as the perfect conceit for the essence of the exhibition: the model’s unflinching and arresting gaze perhaps according for the impact of the unprecedented surge in the professionalisation of female artists in Scotland between 1885 and 1965. This timeframe is bracketed on the one hand by the Glasgow School of Art’s 1885 leadership appointment of Francis Henry Newbery, a painter responsible for opening up the Scottish art scene to women, and on the other, the death in 1865 of Anne Redpath, first female member of the Royal Scottish Academy. A testament to the significant number of women than previously thought engaged in building careers as professional artists, the exhibition reflects how many used their artworks to shatter glass ceilings. I speak to Alice Strang, Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, on how she pulled together such an exciting exhibition.

 Nishana Sukul: Alice, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed about your curatorial role for Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885-1965. Let me begin by asking what inspired you and your colleagues at the Gallery to curate the Modern Scottish Women exhibition?

Alice Strang: Noticing that an unprecedented number of Scottish women trained and practiced as artists during that period, we wanted to find why and what their experiences were and how these differed purely because of their gender compared to their male counterparts. The two most obvious differences are women students access to the life class which was gradual and late. And also a piece of legislation called the Marriage Bar which wasn’t repealed in Scotland until 1945 which meant that when a woman married, she could not no longer hold a full time teaching position; this affected a lot of artists in the exhibition.  Therefore it was valid to look at the impact of gender and to combine with more traditional academic concerns to spread light on an otherwise a well researched chapter of Scottish art history.

NS: Is there a distinctive aesthetic or ethos to Scottish female artists of the modern period compared to contemporaneous women artists in other regions of the UK and beyond?

AS: That’s an interesting question. We wondered in doing this project whether a definable female aesthetic would become apparent, as we thought a lot of people would think that it would be full of still life and mother /child portraits. Portraiture is the genre most represented, whether its self portraits often showing the artists as artists, thus a very public declaration of their profession, or that of their friends and family. Landscape is least represented, because of practical restraints due to finances and domestic responsibilities. For example, someone like Anne Redpath was only able to travel following significant professional and financial success. The exhibition includes abstraction, war work, interiors… really a vast range of genres. And so we realised that with respect to  whether there was a definable female aesthetic, the answer is absolutely not.

Indeed a next step would be to take it wider to look at the women painters of the Bloomsbury Group, and perhaps broaden it to a Pan-European approach.

 NS: Do you have a favourite piece in the exhibition?

AS: Curators shouldn’t have a favourite picture as a mother shouldn’t have a favourite child! But if you forced me to choose, it would probably be Agnes Miller Parker’s The Round Pond which is absolutely fantastic. She’s well known for her wood engravings and rightly so.  What is not widely known, however, is shortly before she launched that side of things in 1930, she painted a series including The Round Pond  and The Horse Fair, which show that she was very aware of latest developments in European art from her London base. There weren’t many Scottish artists working in a modern way in London in between the wars and experts often just quote JD Fergusson, William Johnston and Miller Parker’s husband William McKants. However The Round Pond shows that she was aware of Cubism and Vorticism and combines these cutting edge movements with her acute and humane observation of human behaviour. There’s a wonderful interaction between adults and children and animals and so on; it’s a wonderful simplification. It’s a modern approach of a classic scene of contemporary life. Very ambiguous, very complex and very funny.  We think that she only painted a dozen of these works, only showing four of them, but they simply didn’t sell. Nonetheless they show her in a new light and Scottish modern art history in a new light.

NS: How do you wish visitors to feel after visiting the show?

AS: Inspired. We expect a lot of the artists and their work to be new to visitors and we hope  perhaps to encourage a new look at artists already known.

Overall, we hope that visitors, both male and female are inspired by these women’s experiences.

Article by Nishana Sukul.