When we think of modernism, artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian come to mind. More locally, Australian artists Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker are also considered modernist icons. But what of the women modernist painters, and more specifically – Australian women modernists? In a heartening morning at Heide MOMA, I enjoyed learning about our very own women modernists who are rarely mentioned alongside the Tuckers, Boyds and Nolans – in this case, Moya Dyring, Mirka Mora, Joy Hester and the almost unbelievably Miss Phryne Fisher-ish Hilda Rix Nicholas.
Style notes: wearing H&M skirt, Melissa x Campana Brothers shoes in the peaceful reading room of Heide I, which would have been John and Sunday’s library.
Supporting Heide’s latest exhibition Moya Dyring: An Australian Salon in Paris was a morning tea and discussion led by Dr Jeanette Hoorn, an academic specialising in Australian women modernists. Part of the early Heide circle, Moya Dyring (above), left Melbourne for Europe in the late 1930s and lived much of her life in Paris, in an apartment on Ile St Louis which became known as Chez Moya. This exhibition follows Dyring’s transition from art student at the National Gallery School in Melbourne (1929-1932), where she met her future husband Sam Atyeo, to Parisian resident and charismatic salonnière – from Heide to the heart of Paris. As a young artist, Dyring was among the first painters in Melbourne to respond to the influence of Cubism. Arriving in Paris in 1937, she immersed herself in the Parisian art world, meeting artists and attending studios and exhibitions. Throughout the war years and up until her death in 1967, Dyring remained in close correspondence with John and Sunday Reed and extracts from their letters, as well as photographs and other archival materials, are displayed in the exhibition.
As we squeezed into one of the intimate rooms at Heide I, we learned how Dyring (portrait above, right) and Mora had much in common despite the age difference between them. Both women created their own salons – Dyring with Chez Moya in Paris which brought together Europeans and Australians, and Mora doing similarly on Collins Street in Melbourne. Hoorn has spent much of her career identifying and discussing the contribution of Australian women artists to modernism, and discussed how modernism is so gendered – women simply aren’t considered as part of that movement. Despite having quite substantial bodies of work, women modernists’ work was pooh-poohed as not being serious (because the women carried on lives which included caring for families and parents in addition to pursuing their artistic practice – unlike their male contemporaries who were supported by their wives or families and could spend all their time at practice and were thus more legitimate) – or described as creating inappropriate work for their gender.
Hoorn spent some time speaking on a post-impressionist Australian artist, Hilda Rix Nicholas who married a pastoralist and lived in the country on a large property called ‘Knockalong’. During her life, she sold few works as she refused to discount her work – she priced hers as Tom Roberts would, comfortable that her work was of the same value, both monetarily and artistically. I look forward to reading more about Rix Nicholas, who seems like a wild adventuress – travelling to Tangiers to enjoy the light and paint its colors. She comments in a letter to her friend
“Picture me in this market-place – I spend nearly every day there for it fascinates me completely – have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far – Am feeling thoroughly at home now so am going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first – Oh how I do love it all! … Oh the sun is shining I must out to work.”
In fact, Hilda was in Morocco at the same time as Matisse – having stayed in the same hotel at a similar time and mentioning a delicious Mr. M in her notes from that time. Upon her return to Australia, Rix Nicholas painted landscapes, nailing her canvas to eucalypts and painting en plein in the countryside – often accompanied by her close friend Dorothy Richmond (can’t you just see them in your mind’s eye?). Dorothy went on to marry Hilda’s husband’s cousin, settling in the same area and allowing the pair to continue their devoted friendship on adjoining farms.
Dr Jeanette Hoorn, author of ‘Strange Women’ and Australian modernist academic.
After a brief look at the exhibit, we headed down through the Heide sculpture gardens to enjoy a Cafe Vue morning tea and further discussion. Look at some of the colorful, clever ladies I met! What panache, and good humour too. There was much discussion about Dyring’s salong, Rix Nicholas in Morocco and why Australian women modernists have been excluded from the known tome of contributing artists to their period.
We often imagine that – as young women – we are revolutionaries of some kind. That our ideas are newer, fresher, more contemporary or brave because of the world we live in – so unlike the world of the Moyas and Hildas of yore. It is refreshing, then, to be in a place like Heide, to look out over Sunday’s garden and to consider the completely avant-garde work of women who managed to produce and develop their own modernist works in addition to participating in the roles today’s multi-tasking woman continues to undertake today: the caring for family, for partners, for children, for parents, for our friends, our gardens, our pets and our communities.
This exhibition is reminder that there is no right time or place to create – there’s only really ever now and we should really just get on with it. I’m looking forward to discovering more about these women modernists and learning more about their thoroughly adventurous lives – even more outrageous given that they wouldn’t have had encouragement to pursue their artistic practice that we might enjoy today.