Cover image of the review
Detail of Sally Smart, *The artist’s ballet*, 2019–20, video installation, Bendigo Art Gallery, 2020.

Bessie Davidson & Sally Smart – Two artists and the Parisian avant-garde

19 Sep 2020
Bendigo Art Gallery 20 Mar - 26 Jul 2020

In the suspended time of 2020, it seems permissible to review an exhibition that opened six months previously, closed nearly two months ago and which I never managed to view in person. While these may be less than ideal conditions, they have allowed multiple repeat visits over time via the Bendigo Art Gallery’s online “walk through” video and interactive panoramas of the exhibition installation as well as a more leisured reading of Tansy Curtain and Catherine Speck’s well researched and reassuringly tangible printed catalogue. And this in turn has afforded greater time for reflection.

The recovery of undeservedly “forgotten women artists” is more than merely an exercise in canon expansion or revisionist history. From curatorial and scholarly perspectives, it appeals to those of us (surely I’m not alone here) who harbour a secret persona as super sleuth detective, who enjoy tracking down artworks hidden from public sight for many years, sifting through the minutiae of historical evidence and giving vent to righteous feminist indignation. And from the perspectives of readers and gallery goers these works enable revisiting past eras with fresh eyes so that well curated retrospectives such as this can be revelatory. Bessie Davidson is a textbook case: a dedicated professional painter, she quickly moved beyond mere academic facility to pursue a modern Impressionist vision that won her critical acclaim in Paris where she hosted a weekly salon and became a significant advocate and organiser of women artists as vice-president of La Société Femmes Artistes Modernes as well as an associate, member and secretary of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and a founding member of the Société Nationale Indépendantes. Firmly established in Parisian art circles, she was nonetheless largely neglected in Australia and even now is poorly represented here in public collections with only the National Gallery of Art and Art Gallery of South Australia holding examples of her work. The reason for this neglect is not simply her absence from Australia for most of her career but almost certainly Davidson’s refusal to toe the chauvinist national line, rejecting calls to forge a great “Australian School” and instead choosing to express herself in the lingua franca of French modernism.

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