Want to know which are the best exhibitions of work by 20th-century British women artists in 2022? Look no further than this ‘She Made It’ article! I have chosen my favourites, which take us from Edinburgh to Eastbourne, via Leeds and Milton Keynes.
Barbara Hepworth at the National Galleries of Scotland
The largest exhibition of the work of Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) to be held in Scotland will run at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two in Edinburgh from 9 April to 2 October 2022. Hepworth was born in Wakefield. She trained at Leeds School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. She made her name in the English capital in the late 1920s as a proponent of ‘direct carving’ and emerged as a pioneer of British abstraction in the 1930s. Following a move to Cornwall in 1939, Hepworth became a leading figure in the ‘St Ives School’. She achieved an international standing before her death in the town in 1975. Her former home and studio is now run by Tate as the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Art and Life
Entitled Barbara Hepworth: Art and Life, the exhibition will include not only many of the sculptures for which the artist is best known, but also examples of her paintings and drawings. Celebrating her distinguished career from the 1920s to the 1970s, Hepworth’s interests in subjects as varied as dance, theatre, music, religion, politics and science will be revealed by way of over 120 works. These include Wave (seen above), a painted and strung wooden carving of c.1943, which was inspired by the Cornish landscape. It was purchased by the National Galleries of Scotland in 1999. Art and Life has been curated by Eleanor Clayton of The Hepworth Wakefield, who has written the excellent accompanying publication of the same title. Versions of the exhibition can be seen at The Hepworth Wakefield until 27 February 2022 and at Tate St Ives from 26 November 2022 until 1 May 2023.
Eileen Agar at Leeds Art Gallery
More ‘She Made It’ enjoyment comes with the major retrospective of the work of Eileen Agar (1899-1991) can be seen at Leeds Art Gallery from 29 January until 7 May 2022. Agar was born in Buenos Aires and trained at Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, both in London. Her first solo show was held in the city in 1933 and during that decade she began making collages and works based on the ‘found object’. She was known as a Surrealist after her inclusion in the landmark International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936. However, her wide-ranging and experimental practice came to encompass photography and frottage, as well as working in watercolour, acrylics and three dimensions. Agar followed a unique path of abstraction during a career which spanned five decades. She died in 1991, a year after being elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.
Angel of Anarchy
Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy will consist of over 100 objects, including archival material. They will allow us to trace the inspiration Agar found in Cubism, Surrealism, classical art, ancient mythologies, the natural world and sexual pleasure. Her concept of ‘a feminine type of imagination she identified as womb magic’ can be seen in the collage Erotic Landscape of 1942 (seen above), in which she ‘took control of her own image’ (Louisa Buck, ‘Why artist Eileen Agar’s ‘womb magic’ speaks to our times’, The Art Newspaper, 2 June 2021). The exhibition is named after Agar’s sculpture of 1936-40 in Tate’s collection and has been developed in partnership with the Whitechapel Gallery, London and the Mjellby Konstmuseum, Halmstad. For those who would like to read about the artist, Laura Smith, Curator of the former, has written a book about Agar for Eiderdown Books, which was published in 2021.
Laura Knight at MK Gallery
Laura Knight (1877-1970) was another pioneering British woman artist of the 20th-century. Amongst many other achievements, in 1965 she became the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Her career is being celebrated at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes until 20 Februrary 2022. Born in Derbyshire, Knight trained at Nottingham Art School. She spent a formative period amidst the artist community at Staithes on the Yorkshire coast. A move to Cornwall in 1907 saw her become a leading figure in the ‘Newlyn School’. Her figurative, en plein air practice developed apace; she found success showing at the Royal Academy and moved to London. Knight was fascinated by subjects including the backstage and performative aspects of the ballet, theatre and circus worlds. She was also an Official War Artist during World War Two, including recording the Nuremberg Trials. Her post-war career included multiple major exhibitions and the publication of two autobiographies, before her death aged 92.
A Panoramic View
If you have never been to Milton Keynes, or need a reason to re-visit, now is the time to go! More than 160 works by Laura Knight can be seen in Laura Knight: A Panoramic View. It consists of paintings and works on paper, as well as designs for ceramics, jewellery and costume. Be transported to busy wardrobe departments, such as that depicted in The Yellow Dress (The Wardrobe Room, Stratford-on-Avon) of 1948 (seen above), which was purchased by Worcester Art Gallery and Museum in 1955. Join bathers on Cornish beaches, ballerinas preparing to go on stage and fully-costumed circus performers caught in moments of private reflection. Images of marginalised communities, women undertaking war work and beautifully rendered portraits are also part of the legacy of a prolific and triumphant artistic practice. The extensive accompanying publication is edited by Fay Blanchard and Anthony Spira of MK Gallery, whilst the on-site and on-line conference The Show is On: Laura Knight’s Career & Contexts will be held on 28 January 2022. The exhibition has been organised in co-operation with Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance and Nottingham Castle Museum.
Margaret Mellis at Towner Eastbourne
My final ‘She Made It’ choice is the work of Margaret Mellis (1914-2009) which can be seen at Towner Eastbourne until 30 January 2022. Mellis was born in Wukingfu, China and grew up in Edinburgh. She trained at Edinburgh College of Art, under André Lhote (1885-1962) in Paris and at the Euston Road School in London. In 1939, Mellis moved to Cornwall where she made collages and constructions and for a time was at the centre of the St Ives School. A move to the south of France was followed by settling in Suffolk. Here Mellis made paintings in a new phase of exploring abstraction, geometry and colour relationships. Her ‘Envelope Flower Drawings’ explored the form, beauty and pathos of the short-life of cut flowers. However, Mellis is perhaps best known for the Driftwood Constructions of the latter part of her career.
Mellis’s position as a British Modernist is asserted from the beginning of this important exhibition. Her rarely exhibited collages of the early 1940s show her skilful use of card, transparent papers, and household labels. The vibrancy of her abstract paintings of the 1950s and 1960s gives way to a focus on the constructions she made from 1978, from assemblages of found materials. They were often scavenged from the Suffolk coastline and were kept in a pile in the artist’s studio. As the exhibition interpretation explains ‘each piece was imbued with the action of the time, from the relentless tides that washed them ashore to the indents and marks of their former function’ (Margaret Mellis: Modernist Constructs, Large Print Guide accessed 5 January 2022). Mellis intuitively responded to these qualities, re-purposed and assembled the items and created works such as The Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea of 1996-97 (seen above) which is on loan from The Redfern Gallery, London. This invites the viewer to create a narrative inspired by the title, forms and colours thus brought together. Installation shots of the exhibition, as well as the room panels and labels are available on-line here and here.
I hope to see as many of these ‘She Made It’ exhibition as I can and look forward to other displays of the work of women artists during 2022. For more about Barbara Hepworth, please read this article, Margaret Mellis is included in this blog and for details of a short talk about Modern Scottish Women Artists please follow this link.