From Knitters to Transvestites

Four Shows by Women Artists

In the UK, an array of shows is opening this Fall on women artists, whether they be weavers, sculptors, or photographers.

I travestiti, Gilda, Genoa 1965-67. © Martini & Ronchetti, courtesy Archivio Lisetta Carmi.

Some of them are more successful and engaging than others. Some seem just a tad out of date, but a few of them are about remarkable creatives who deserve to be remembered.

It seems strange to be writing about four exhibitions devoted to women artists in as much as one hopes that we had gone beyond that. But there again, maybe not.

Double Weave at the Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft is a truly difficult exhibition to review – at least for me. It had me remembering how my poor grandmother failed to teach me the basics of knitting at the tender age of eight or nine.

She was a champion knitter who made exquisite jumpers for all her grandchildren for gifts at Christmas.

In her youth, my grandmother was a talented lacemaker and embroiderer. This talent extended to my mother but certainly not to me.

My pathetic attempt at a bright yellow egg cosy for Easter ended up being full of dropped stitches and big enough for an ostrich egg.

I was reminded of it with malicious glee throughout my childhood. So, tackling the intricacies of weaving left me in a cold sweat.

The mere mention of warp and weft meant that I was even keener to indulge in all the free pastries and coffee on offer than get to grips with double weaving or looms.

My inadequacy aside, this is a fascinating and, in some ways, shocking show.

Ditchling is a large village in deepest rural Sussex known for the various artistic communities that were based there. The most famous one being led by the sculptor Eric Gill.

Gill’s sculpture of Prospero and Ariel from Shakespeare’s Tempest is above the entrance to BBC Broadcasting House in London. The BBC typeface is Gill sans font and was also designed by him. Various examples of his art are scattered throughout the 1930s building.

The statue on the facade of BH is often attacked. Like Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris, its genitalia is regularly hacked off by people outraged at the sexual abuse practised by Gill upon his sisters and daughters.

The gallery in Ditchling holds an archive of  Gill’s work but does not hide the appalling behaviour that he has become known for more than for his art.

The current show also looks at hidden sexual behaviour, but this time, one to celebrate rather than condemn.

It is a beautiful space full of light. Half of it is the old school house and the other half an old barn that was relocated to act as a cafe and shop.

There is also a magical garden full of plants that the founders grew to dye the wool for their woven artworks.

There is something incredibly charming and timeless about this place in one corner of the village green near the church and across the road from the inn.

It’s Merrie England at its best. One can taste the homemade greengage jam on freshly baked scones with delicate and plentiful cups of Lapsang Souchong. At least I can.

Hilary Bourne co-founded the museum, and the current exhibition is devoted to the textiles produced by her with her work and life partner Barbara Allen.

Many lesbian couples were attracted to the applied arts at the turn of the last century, or so it seems.

On the wall of the first room is a panel compiled by the design academic Dr. Jane Hattrick called A Map of intimacies…women’s networks of love, friendship and textile practice.

Hattrick charts at least ten same-sex couples who were in one way or another involved in the arts and crafts movement.

They all lived quiet lives in beautiful country villages and got on with their work. There is no definite proof that their relationships were romantic as well as professional.

However, reading between the lines, one can make an educated guess.

Most people at the beginning of the 20th Century did not want to talk about their private lives, and these couples were no exception.

At one point during her introductory talk, Dr Hattrick said how wonderful it must have been to have worked and slept with the same person, as you could wake them up in the middle of the night with the solution to a tricky weaving dilemma.

I can think of nothing worse and would have been tempted to have separate rooms, but I almost get her point.

These women were pioneers in art and life.

Bourne and Allen met while working in the theatre, making costumes and scenery for a London show.

They were instantly attracted to one another and set up their own textile studio.

Bourne and Allen designed fabrics for Fortnum & Mason, Heals, Liberty and the interiors of the first British jet planes, amongst other eye-popping commissions.

They designed the original curtains and possibly carpets for the Royal Festival of Britain when it opened in 1951 at the heart of the Festival of Britain.

These fabrics are so well known by Londoners, but not even the RFH knew the names of the women who designed them.

I am unsure if this was sexism or just the fact that even today, the design of a building is often only credited to the architect in charge.

They were also responsible for the costumes for the 1959 Oscar-winning film Ben Hur, directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston as the Roman charioteer.

Neither wanted to do it, so they plucked an insane fee out of the Sussex air that the Hollywood producers were only too happy to accept.

It is a lovely show and a testament to these two women who created their community and world. They taught many other women how to weave and make their textiles.

Sadly, their story has an unhappy ending, with Barbara dying in a hotel fire on holiday.

Hilary managed to escape the flames but lived on for over three decades, missing her companion most dreadfully but funding this splendid museum in her memory.

Another woman inspired by British textiles, particularly tweed, was the French fashion designer Coco Chanel.

The somewhat pompously titled Gabrielle Chanel Fashion Manifesto opened recently at the Victoria & Albert. There is almost no point in writing a review of it as it has already sold out, though it looked pretty empty when I went.

The V&A seems addicted to putting on shows about haute couture fashion.

Granted, the Alexander McQueen show was visually arresting, and the Christian Dior show was fascinating about the work done by Dior himself. But they follow a similar pattern.

The Chanel show is unsurprisingly more about her life than her craft, and by life, they mean her endless stream of titled British lovers.

You are not expected to like Chanel or her determined and successful social climbing, but in the end, one feels a mixture of loathing and pity for her. It is not a winning combination.

What is particularly striking about the exhibition is how un-couture-like the clothes are. They resemble a mixture of the best of the High Street and a great vintage find from Oxfam.

Her first shirt made of silk jersey in 1916 is touching, and anything in red velvet is fine by me, but not one item, from the little black dress to the famous woollen suit, really stands out.

The jewels are the only items that feel appropriately spectacular and exclusive.

After suffering the appalling non-stop music in the Chanel exhibition, I went to the gorgeous silence of permanent fashion galleries at the V&A. Yet again, I was completely entranced by the timeless elegance of the two items on display by Coco’s great rival Elsa Schiaparelli.

This was true couture and just perfectly jaw-dropping in every single way—no doubt as to why the Schiaparelli clothes were fiendishly expensive. But my grandmother’s dressmaker in the deepest, darkest rural Shropshire could have knocked up the Chanel clothes.

That may be their attraction—understated chic.

There is a feeble attempt to redress the balance of her wartime activities. When the Germans entered Paris, Chanel took as a lover of German officer Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

They slept together for the duration of the war at the Ritz in the Place Vendome. She soon became an agent for the Nazi secret service – her code name was Westminster, after her famous lover, the Duke of Westminster.

Like many of her pre-World War Two lovers, the baron was a notorious Antisemite, as indeed was Chanel. The exhibition claims that she was also a member of the French Resistance and shows two papers attesting to her work for them.

Both are dated 1947, when Chanel lived in Switzerland and was trying to return to her business in the Rue Cambron. There is something very uncomfortable and unpleasantly commercial about all this.

The Lightbox in Woking is another extraordinary building. This time not on a village green but wedged next to an inner city dual carriageway with a modern shopping centre to the right and a roundabout to the left.

It is a long, narrow structure with a tranquil walled garden and a calm, almost studious atmosphere.

The current show comprises work by women artists from two notable collections – the Ingram Collection of Modern and Contemporary British Art and the Women’s Art Collection from Murray Edwards College in Cambridge.

A Spirit Inside is a slightly thrown-together exhibition in one medium-sized room with not much linking the artworks other than they are all by women and possibly showing how these women tried to emphasise their own ‘spirit inside’ in their paintings or sculptures.

It is a strange ambition, and I am not sure that it is successful. However, a few remarkable gems in it are well worth looking at.

The exhibition opens with a tiny 1920 painting on foil and glass by the Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington. No bigger than a CD case, it is one of Carrington’s tinsel pictures and shows her friend, the actress and poet Iris Tree, in the guise of a knight on horseback.

The exhibition’s title comes from a letter written by Carrington to a friend in 1920. She writes, “ .. to marry him would not make it any better, because one cannot change a spirit inside one”.

Tree kept this miniature icon with her throughout her life, and it became a kind of talisman. It is really quite lovely and is full of hope.

Other treasures include The Golden Girl by the shamefully little-known Dod Procter – an unknown flaxen-haired 1930s beauty in a velvet gown. Also, a terrifying Paula Rego of a 14th-century Portuguese prince making love to the exhumed corpse of a noblewoman called Ines de Castro.

There are some exciting works by Leonora Carrington and Eileen Agar, as well as an important sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, but the two stunners for me were hung side by side and are by Winifred Nicholson and Bridget Riley.

Riley’s 1950s Women at a Tea-table shows the back of a woman in a blue chair in front of a breakfast table. When asked recently about it, the artist said that she remembers the blue chair from the Mill House in Lincolnshire, where she then lived, and still uses some of the items on the table.

There is such a feeling of intimacy and pleasure in this early work. Breakfast is not only the best meal of the day but the most private one.

Winifred Nicholson is another much-ignored artist and yet so astoundingly and consistently surprising, best known for her charming posies of wildflowers or portraits of her children at the beach in striped t-shirts.

She is so much more than that. Woman Playing The Piano is a 1930s portrait of her friend, the New Zealand pianist Vera Moore. Nicholson believed that music and colour were linked, and in this wonderful painting, they are.

It is such a simple but perfect picture of Nicholson’s close friend, just as she is about to start playing a piece by Poulenc or perhaps Ravel. It is worth the price of admission alone to see this tribute to female friendship and the power of art.

The Estorick Collection is a hidden joy and one not always willingly shared by Londoners. We like to keep this exquisite gallery on a perfect London square all to ourselves.

Known for its world-class collection of Italian 20th-century paintings, it also hosts quite exceptional temporary exhibitions. The latest of these is Lisetta Carmi: Identities. It is the first show in the UK of this relatively unknown Italian photographer who died last year.

Lisetta Carmi was born in Genoa in 1924 into a Jewish family. The family fled to Switzerland after becoming victimised by Mussolini’s racial laws. Lisetta was a talented pianist and entered the conservatory upon her return to Milan.

Carmi was set to become a concert pianist when, in 1960, a musicologist friend asked her to accompany him on a research trip to Puglia. She took a small camera with her, and the nine rolls of film she shot convinced her that photography and not music was her destiny.

She started in Genoa with photos of the dockers working in the port. They were the first of her series looking at the harsh conditions of workers who lived on the breadline. They also inspired her portraits of outcasts.

In the illuminating RAI film that is shown in the exhibition, Carmi says that she identified with outcasts, having been thrown out of her country as a young girl. She never lost her empathy for people that society so casually dismissed.

The second room features her portraits of the travestiti (transvestites) of Genoa. Carmi wrote that the travestiti “helped me to accept myself for what I am: a person who does not live according to a role… observing them made me understand how everything that is masculine can also be feminine and vice versa”.

Her book of travestiti portraits, I Travestiti, was published in 1972 and was roundly criticised in the press. It has, of course, become a cult classic.

Lisetta Carmi’s sympathetic, gentle portraits are very 1960s.

Featuring images of back-combed hair, negligees and tight skirts with matching twinsets, it was a glamour found in the films of New Wave cinema. Howerver, the interiors are more Visconti, with faux Louis XIV bedroom sets and candelabra. Together they are strangely haunting and lonely.

Carmi’s masterpiece is not on show at the Estorick, and perhaps with good reason. In February 1966, she went to Liguria to photograph the exiled and disgraced poet Ezra Pound.

She wrote in her book L’ombra di un poeta.Incontro Ezra Pound: “I photograph him, but he seems to me like an apparition, like someone who lives in a closed world, a world we cannot enter… we have encountered the shadow of a poet.”

Umberto Eco wrote that “the images of Pound shot by Lisetta say more than anything that has ever been written about him, his complexity and extraordinary nature”.

In 1979 Carmi abandoned her camera and became a devotee of Babaji. She opened a mediation ashram in his name in her home town in Puglia.

It is a fascinating and important exhibition.