In terms of turning their female characters into autonomous figures existing independently of the viewer’s gaze, few artists have approached the narrative skill of Helen Bradley. To my mind, one of the best lenses through which to view her work is how well it stands up to the oft-cited Bechdel test. Named after the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test seeks to measure female representation by asking whether a narrative (often a film) contains at least one moment in which two women have a conversation about something other than a man: at least half of all films do not pass the test. It is not hard to conjecture that the history of figurative painting would perform even more abysmally. In this context, the reasons for the startling freshness of Bradley’s painting becomes apparent.
People often discuss how realistic Bradley’s paintings feel despite their ostensibly naïve style: a response due in large part to the myriad narratives and conversations that populate the canvas. Bradley’s fantastic Oh! The Pot Market’s Arrived is a perfect illustration of this effect. Across a town square the artist weaves a tapestry of human behaviour, integrating the meetings, conversations and interactions that make up daily life. Crucially, the majority of these interactions are between women. Bradley conveys this atmosphere so successfully that we rarely pause to consider how uncommon scenes like this are in the artistic canon. When we are asked to think of a group figurative painting almost all the examples that jump to mind are either populated by, or revolving around, interactions between men. Bradley’s great success therefore is to remind us that, outside of the world of the arts, this is rarely the case. To articulate why Bradley so completely fulfils the Bechdel test is to articulate why her paintings resonate with us.
The same natural approach to their figures, one which prioritises accurate human interaction above art historical norms, also defines the work of Dorothea Sharp. While one could talk at length about many aspects of her importance, it is again the naturalism of her figures which captures the viewer’s attention. Painted at the start of the twentieth century, works like Summer Rockpools represented a significant development from previous portrayals of children. Breaking from a Victorian tradition in which children were almost always depicted alongside parents or relatives in a formal setting, Sharp’s works capture the charming informality of real childhood behaviour. As in Bradley’s work these often-relegated figures assume centre stage, not as subjects but characters in their own narratives. As Berger pointed out the difference between a naked sitter (who lacked clothes) and a nude sitter (the naked object of an often-male gaze), so too should we make the distinction between the characters and subjects when understanding the power of Bradley and Sharp’s work.
This is not to argue that these qualities are exclusive to the work of female artists, although it must be said that they are far better at balanced representation. Take Modest Huys’ masterful The Harvest, which captures female Belgian farmhands at work. The painting stands as a recognition of the fact that throughout history women have tended to disproportionally undertake physically demanding agricultural jobs, and as such, Huys’ captures his foreground figures in monumental, almost classical terms. Although it should also be pointed out that the artist has, in part, idealised rather than naturalised his figures. Thus, returning to Bradley and Sharp, it should be pointed out that in the case of both artists, the choice to depict the informal figure as opposed to the controlled and idealised subject has often been seen a gendered lens. At times Sharp’s works have been dismissed as sentimental and Bradley’s as childlike, labels that would not have been attached nearly as readily to their male contemporaries. Sharp’s work, in particular, has seen its inventive, impressionistic colouring and brushwork relegated because of the perception of her subjects as saccharine. Today, we thankfully recognise the power and appeal of naturalistic depictions of daily life instead of bemoaning a lack of grandeur or formal hierarchy: but we should still acknowledge that this binary casts a long shadow.
We hope to see you all in the gallery during Women’s History Month to enjoy these thought-provoking paintings. One of the best facets of our profession is that every time we discuss these works with visitors we find new qualities in them; we look forward to hearing your opinions!