Chichester exhibition showcases radical women artists of early 20th century

One of the leading women modernists of the early 20th century, Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939) used her art to respond to the volatile times in which she lived.

Curated by Dr Alicia Foster, the current Pallant House Gallery exhibition ‘Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries’ demonstrates how the painter and poet combined her modern art experimentation with her radical politics.

Born in the late 19th century, Dismorr was not even permitted to vote when as a young woman she embarked on her artistic career.

The two avant-garde movements she associated with in her early years – Rhythm and Vorticism – both showed support for women’s suffrage, encouraging artists to ally pioneering art practice with progressive ideas.

Later, Dismorr would exhibit with the Artists International Association, which was formed in 1933 to oppose fascism and imperialism.

‘Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries’ is a fascinating exhibition which contextualises Dismorr’s career alongside changing social and political contexts, and the artistic movements of her day.

Walking through the three rooms of the gallery – arranged to demonstrate phases of Dismorr’s creative life – the wide scope and variety of the artist’s visual experimentation is clear.

The bright canvases of the first room – depicting buildings and landscapes in warm terracottas and pea greens, blocked into recognisable forms by thick, indigo lines – were painted during the artist’s early travels in Europe.

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Paintings in the first exhibition room. On the left hand side is Les Baux, the Priest enters his Church (1911)

There is something of Paul Cézanne’s technique in paintings such as Dismorr’s Les Baux, the Priest enters his Church (1911) – unsurprisingly, perhaps, as the famous Post-Impressionist also worked as a painter in this part of Provençal.

The period following the First World War marks a significant change in the style of Dismorr’s work; at first glance, the second exhibition room features a far more muted palette. Pencil and watercolour sketches depict Dimorr’s homes in France and London, a couple sat together, a mother holding her baby.

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Paintings on display in the second exhibition room

The rise of fascism shaped the social backdrop of Dismorr’s artistic life in the 1930s, as demonstrated by the third and final exhibition room. Here, the artist’s further move into abstraction is demonstrated by paintings such as Related Forms (c.1937).

Her understated use of shape and composition was a deliberate rebuke to the nationalistic, figurative art of the Nazi movement.

In Pallant House Gallery, Dismorr’s paintings and sketches are displayed alongside that of her contemporaries – other radical female artists such as Ethel Wright, Anne Estelle Rice, and Nan Youngman – further illustrating the contexts impacting Dismorr’s work.

The exhibition invites the viewers to find connections between Dismorr and her fellow female creators.

For example, Dismorr’s later work echoes the abstracted shapes and emphasis on form in Paule Vézelay’s paintings, and her depictions of women – mothers, performers, her own self-portrait – reflect the soft but strong figures in the sculptures of Betty Rea and Elizabeth Muntz.

Combining the visual with the literary, Dismorr also published poetry alongside her painting practice; the exhibition features several of her poems read aloud by actress Jessica Hynes.

Dismorr’s interest in experimenting is clear – captions point out when the artist is testing textures and patterns, and several works demonstrate her interest in playing with scale.

Her sketch of vaudeville singer Ethel Levey (1924) manipulates Levey’s size in contrast to that of her male sidekick as a visual metaphor for her powerful voice.

An enjoyable addition to this display is the listening post which plays a 1916 music hall recording of Levey as she performs ‘Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night’.

The exhibition’s timeline culminates at the dawn of the Second World War: a conflict that Dismorr did not live to see as she died by suicide three days before Germany invaded Poland.

One is left wondering what next phase her art may have entered, what her next step towards pioneering art forms like abstraction might have been, had she lived longer.

Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries is open until February 23.

The story was originally published on the Chichester Observer website, and can be read here.

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Paintings by Jessica Dismorr (left) and Ethel Wright (right)

About Emily Turner

By day, journalist. By night, postgraduate researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, studying the medical humanities in the Victorian period. Occasional artist.

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