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New exhibition to rescue art’s radical women

Self-portrait by Jessica Dismorr. Photo: Private Collection - Credit: Private Collection

CLAUDIA PRITCHARD on a new exhibition seeking to revive the reputation of Jessica Dismorr and others eclipsed both by their male counterparts and global events.

The electricity was off because the bill was unpaid, the friends sat on crates scavenged from the nearby fruit and veg market in old Covent Garden, but when the first meeting of the Artists International Association was held in 1933 feelings ran high and ambitions aimed high.

Creeping unease about the rise of right-wing thinking in the mainland of Europe had prompted the young painters, sculptors and cartoonists of the day to take a stand.

Papers were written, exhibitions staged, and fellow artists and thinkers in other countries were given funds or practical help.

The illustrator and, later, official Second World War artist Edward Ardizzone and the satirical caricaturist James Boswell were among early members of the AIA. And so too was the painter and poet Jessica Dismorr.

One of only three women to show in the AIA’s 1937 exhibition in London, her membership was cut short in 1939. On August 29 that year, she killed herself at a nursing home in Marylebone, victim of mental instability at intervals throughout her short life. She was 54.

The brief career of Jessica Dismorr is the subject of a new exhibition, Radical Women, at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, that reassesses a talent eclipsed in successive ways.

It was not uncommon for male artists to be more vigorously championed by curators and gallerists alike than their fewer women colleagues. Furthermore, the Second World War, declared days after her death, changed the priorities and possibilities for artists. And they changed direction again when peace was regained.

Dismorr was by no means the only woman to make a stand against fascism. Fellow exhibitors in the 1937 exhibition entitled Unity of Artists for Peace, Democracy and Cultural Development were Barbara Hepworth, who had lately moved into abstraction, and her fellow sculptor Eileen Holding.

The art establishment – represented by figures such as Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery from 1934 to 1945 and highly influential art historian – were sceptical of such overt politicisation of art.

But the youngsters were ahead of the curve: Hitler weaponised art with his Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in the same year. Here he displayed with scorn what he defined as “degenerate” modern art, exposing to ridicule works by Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and many more artists now considered masters of the 20th century.

Dismorr would have failed the ‘degenerate’ test every time, as she effortlessly absorbed modernism on her European travels and moved rapidly through styles. She was born on March 2, 1885 in Gravesend, known as Jessie by her four brilliant and gifted sisters and parents, an affluent Australian merchant and his first cousin. The broad-minded parents allowed her to study at the Slade, then the most progressive art school, where women were, like men, allowed to attend life classes.

Although enrolled at the Slade until 1906, she lived in Paris for about four years until 1908, then studied there, sharing a studio and travelling widely.

The 20th century was distinguished by successive movements and manifestos in art, groups and publications popping up all over the continent. In 1911 the Rhythm group of artists, who had worked in Paris, published its first magazine. The following year Rhythm staged its first and apparently only exhibition, at which Dismorr showed six landscapes. Her warm palette had already been influenced by what was happening on the mainland of Europe, where Gauguin and Matisse were among those liberating the role of colour.

Dismorr next signed up to the Rebel Arts Centre which morphed into the Vorticist Group, led by the Cubist-influenced artist Wyndham Lewis.

She was one of only two female signatories, with fellow artist Helen Saunders, of the hard-hitting and iconoclastic Vorticist manifesto, as espoused in 1914 in the first edition of the group’s magazine Blast. She showed at the Vorticist Exhibition in London in 1915, and again in New York’s Vorticist exhibition, two years later.

By this time, she had nursed and served as a bilingual field officer in France. Her experiences in the First World War are dramatically reflected in her fractured and fragmented Abstract Composition (1915). Unable to paint during her war service, she turned to poetry, her poems including Monologue, a description of birth from the point of view of the child that is as vivid as her visual compositions.

But her writing met with a mixed reception, and in 1920, with a family history of mental ill health, she had a nervous breakdown. An uncharacteristically sympathetic Wyndham Lewis supported her, advising her to ignore medical advice that she stop painting. In the ensuing years she painted prolifically.

In 1925, she lost the friendship of the notoriously truculent Lewis, but won critical approval for her first and only solo exhibition at the avant-garde and influential Mayor Gallery in Cork Street. The show “should be seen by all interested in the modern movement”, the influential critic Frank Rutter wrote in the Sunday Times.

Admitted to the Seven and Five Society, named after its founding seven painters and five sculptors, she was rubbing shoulders with the most important artists of the day, including the painters Ben Nicholson and John Piper. The sculptor Henry Moore became a personal friend.

In 1936 in Amsterdam, in a riposte to fascism’s contempt for ‘degenerate art’, an exhibition entitled De Olympiade Onder Dictatuur featured work by six women. Among them were Dismorr and the then secretary of the AIA, Betty Rae, an anti-fascist activist and sculptor.

Like Dismorr’s, the names of Betty Rae, Helen Saunders and several others in this exhibition are all but unknown to most gallery-goers today. But as this exhibition shows, they were producing work often on a par with their better-known male contemporaries. Rea’s Mother and Child has echoes of Moore and Jacob Epstein.

Ethel Wright’s sumptuous Portrait of Una Dugdale Duval (The Music Room) of 1912 resembles the work of John Singer Sargent at his most opulent.

Many of these women had the independent means and therefore both the time and the money to devote to their art. Who knows how many more might have emerged given the chance?

Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and Her Contemporaries is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until February 23

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