On International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating #5WomenArtists. Russell Dornan and Ania Ostrowska look at the work of women artists and the role of art as therapy in the Adamson Collection.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. asks us again this year: “Can you name five women artists?” This simple question should be much easier to answer than it is for many people, highlighting the lack of recognition faced by both contemporary and historical women artists. Last year tens of thousands of posts answering the question were shared on social media. This year, more than 200 institutions across the world are taking part to draw attention to work by the 51% of artists who are woefully underrepresented.
Until last Sunday, London Whitechapel Art Gallery hosted the exhibition ‘Is it even worse in Europe?’ by iconic feminist art activists Guerrilla Girls, who are currently throwing a spotlight on the European art world and in the 1980s famously asked: “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?”.
Today is International Women’s Day and we wanted to look at five women artists from the Adamson Collection, assembled by the British artist Edward Adamson (1911-1996). During more than thirty years as Art Director at the long-stay psychiatric hospital at Netherne in Surrey he pioneered the idea of art as therapy, and eventually came to consider the work of patients in the wider context of outsider art. His collection of works by patients has travelled internationally and provides valuable insights into the private worlds of patients stigmatised by mental illness. Diverse and original, the collection holds a great number of works by female artists, including the sculptor Rolanda Polonska.
Adamson believed that exhibiting works by patient artists educated the public about the creativity and humanity of those living with mental illness, thus diminishing the stigma associated with these conditions. Confronted with the direct message of the works, ‘sane’ onlookers hopefully become less hostile and prejudiced and develop compassion or even a degree of identification with the artists.
For Adamson, artistic self-expression itself was healing and in his studio he created a civilised space, enabling otherwise restricted people to experience a certain degree of freedom. His style was crucially non-interventionist: as a facilitating ‘artist’, he did not teach the patients how to draw or paint, did not suggest their content and did not interpret their works as a psychiatrist or therapist would have. His outlook was profoundly humanistic and he made provisions for the people who preferred to work alone or required unusual materials.
In the 1930s, the work of people compelled to live in asylums became inspiration for Expressionists and Surrealists, who declared war against classical form and abandoned naturalistic representation.
Surrealists’ unorthodox approach to the creative process paved the way for art therapy, insisting on free expression uninhibited by the constraints of style or ‘reason’. One of the creators represented in the Adamson Collection, Margaret P, excelled in works of abstract geometric form.
According to Adamson, Bishop (who spent more than 30 years at Netherne) was a quiet and retiring person. The thousands of pictures she painted during this time depict the feelings of depression, anger, isolation and persecution that she experienced. Bringing to mind Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘Scream’, they share the horror felt by a persecuted person stuck in a hopeless situation.
Because many of Bishop’s paintings show a piercing ‘cry from the heart’, they were prominently featured in the hospital gallery, the original purpose of which was to invite nurses and doctors to imagine the patients’ feelings. Her work was also used by the mental health charity Mind in an effective poster campaign. A cry for help recorded in these images addresses not only a professional audience but also viewers outside the psychiatric hospital, asking them to feel compassion for the patients.
Rowlands abandoned the smooth pebbles on which she began painting for the jagged irregularity of flints, discarded by local farmers tilling the fields; she transformed them into people and animals.
Her medium-specific sculptures responded to the flints’ shapes and showed amazing sensitivity to minute details of depicted objects. She was a prolific artist and produced two or three works a day. Rowlands had access the studio at weekends so she could work there when Adamson was not around.
How do you name an anonymous artist? We wanted to include one of the many currently unknown artists in the Adamson Collection; not knowing their names does not erase the work and emotion that went into their art.
Much has been written about the eye as a recurring motif in psychiatric patients’ art and its possible meanings, although the eye is not infrequent in modern art and may have no psychiatric significance in some cases. One interpretation associates it with feelings of guilt, whether it is thought of as the ‘eye of God’ or the all-seeing eye of secular authority.
The Adamson Collection contains numerous works featuring eyes, by various creators. This image is a variation on the theme, with many surveillant eyes planted in the subject’s hair. She strikes back, both with an exclamation of the title (‘You’re getting into my hair!’) and with her powerful locks, reminiscent of Medusa’s snakes.
Polonska (who preferred the Polish feminine version of her last name but is usually known as ‘Polonsky’) was a gifted sculptor, painter and poet, who spent more than 35 years at Netherne having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. During this period she produced hundreds of paintings and drawings, some of which were studies for sculptures.
For Polonska, music was an inducement to creative activity. From close study of her drawings in the collection, one can see many examples of the surrealist automatic drawing exercise where a piece of music would be played and she would place the nib of a pen or point of a pencil on the paper and allow the music to move through her as she created the picture.
Some of her more impressive works were the Stations of the Cross for the hospital chapel, which – because of financial restraints- have never been cast in bronze, only plaster. After leaving Netherne, she lived and exhibited in Paris. She died in 1996, the same year as Adamson. Towards the end of her life she wrote to the Collection’s Secretary, saying: ‘Art was my salvation’.
Join the National Museum of Women in the Arts throughout March to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5WomenArtists on social media.