Challenging Convention Exhibition Review

Challenging Convention –  Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle. 17 May 2021 – 21 August 2021

During the week, I took my time to pop into the exhibition Challenging Convention at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle Upon Tyne.  Although the gallery is in a place I would consider local, it’s not a place that I frequent regularly, instead choosing other galleries, with bigger names in other cities.  The Challenging Convention exhibition wasn’t at the top of my list of exhibitions that I have planned to visit, but it is in the list, so I popped in. 

The Challenging Convention exhibition itself was conceived by the late Amy Barker, who worked as a curator for Tyne and Wear Museums.  In the foreword to the exhibition guide for this exhibition, it is mentioned that Amy desired to bring female artists to the fore, to highlight women artists whose names have been almost forgotten by history.  That the exhibition has gone ahead, albeit in perhaps a slightly different form to what was envisioned, is a credit to the teams and art experts at Tyne and Wear Museums.

As I previously mentioned, these are all women who once had art careers, whose names would have been well known in the early to mid-twentieth century have been relatively forgotten.  Only one of the names of these artists, Dod Proctor(1890 – 1972), is familiar to myself though I only knew of a small amount of her work, and I certainly had no conception of the range of her painting.  The others were all unknown to me, this exhibition served as a nice introduction for me.  Dame Laura Knight (1877 – 1970) was the star of the show for me personally, her origins weren’t the lofty heights of society, but through encouragement and time spent among artists is both Yorkshire and Cornwall she worked her way to becoming a successful artist, even becoming the first woman to become a member of the Royal Academy. 

Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961) spent quite a lot of her younger time in London, moving within art circles there, she was quite an experimental artist, also taking part in exhibitions in the 1910’s.  The range of art by her that has been selected for display includes indoor domestic scenes as well as arrangements of flowers and objects, also outdoor scenes.   The fourth artist on display here is Gwen John (1876 – 1939).  She left Tenby in Wales for the Slade art school in London in 1895, Her works strike me as quite different in tone from that of the other three on display, several of the limited range shown are subdued in colour, almost like she didn’t wish to use anything to vibrant. 

Taken together, the work and stories of these four female artists describe a group of women, who were all young women at a time when society was changing rapidly around them, they are women who took a chance to make their own career, doing something they loved, even if they ended up overshadowed by the men in their lives.  All of these women had a network of other artists, or a group within which they moved, supported and for some exhibited.  Both Dod and Laura took a direct challenge to the art establishment of the time by painting nude figures, even though as women, they were excluded from any opportunity for formally learn how to do so. 

The collections of paintings that are displayed by these ladies is quite varied in that there are household scenes, which in the case of Vanessa Bell includes a picture that contains her husband, Dod proctor’s paintings displayed a lot of still life, with models set in a home style environment, painting and showing these from the female perspective, her picture of Cissy Jones in Sunrise is a fantastic demonstration of her skill.  Laura knights displayed paintings include a nude with herself painting a friend as the subject and also paintings of ballerina’s preparing for the stage as well as a flamenco dancer, but for me, the defining picture for Knight within this exhibit is A balloon site, Coventry which was an official wartime commission. 

The aims of the curatorial team at the Laing was the bring together a collection of inspirational female artists who each, in there own was challenged the conventions of their time.  In this, they have succeeded, each of the artists stories, as narrated by the pictorial display within the gallery demonstrates a unique personality who is highly skilled at whet they do, who each in their own way decided to do as they wished within their work and also to forge a career at a time when most women wouldn’t have had that option.  I do feel however that the personalities of the artists fails to come across somewhat, leaving an exhibition that is relatively dry, and in a way impersonal. 

At the time of my visit (mid-July 2021), COVID restrictions were still in place, leading to a situation whereby if one is to follow the social distancing route around the exhibition, then it becomes somewhat disjointed.  Rather than viewing the work of each individual artist in turn, we come to John, then Bell, Proctor, Knight, back to more Proctor, Bell again and more John at the very end.  This however, is my only comment on the organisation and set up of such an otherwise well curated display.  

I would also recommend the small guide book / exhibition catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, especially if like myself you weren’t previously acquainted with the work of these artists.  While not too in depth, it is a very easily readable and fantastic introduction to them.  Sadly it doesn’t contain as many images of the individual pictures which are on display as I would have liked, but it is still a charming and informative booklet. 

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