Cover image of the review
Ethel Spowers, Resting models, 1934, linocut, printed in colour inks, from four blocks. National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra. Purchased 1979.

Spowers and Syme

23 Jul 2022
Geelong Gallery 16 Jul - 16 Oct 2022

Monographs are out. Polyphony is in. The strongest curatorial statements being made in Australia seem to be that all artists have voices, and that the most legitimate way to represent that is to give them all space—a brief solo—before the chorus reasserts itself. This is a strategy designed for managing the discordance of contemporary art, but it has been equally applied to historical artworks. What do we do then when we only have two artists? Less space to hide in a duet. But more than that, what do we do when the two artists in question seem at first glance to be one artist? A solo sung by two mouths.

I’d forgive you if you find it difficult to tell the difference between the work of Eveline Syme (1888–1961) and Ethel Spowers (1890–1947), although I’ll give you the discriminating criteria later. In a decidedly non-hierarchical touring exhibition at Geelong Gallery, curated by Sarina Noordhuis-Fairfax from the National Gallery of Australia, Spowers and Syme are presented in a shared-biography model that is usually reserved for lovers (and occasionally rivals). In the two photographs that open the display, Spowers (in 1935) and Syme (in 1943) have their hair styled the same way; they could be twins. Both rich, neither married. Their money came from newspapers, and they were “uncannily” the daughters of rival press barons. In the accompanying catalogue Noordhuis-Fairfax skates their lives around each other, blurring the lines between them. E. Spowersyme. It’s an intimate display.

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