This examination of Australian women artists who lived and worked in Paris shows the lure of France

  • Intrépide: Australian women artists in early twentieth century France, by Clem Gorman and Therese Gorman. Monash University Publishing. $34.95.

Intrépide: Australian women artists in early twentieth century France is a curious book about a very well-known phenomenon - the influx of Australian artists travelling, studying and living in Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

Stella Bowen's Provencal Conversation, 1936. Picture: Supplied

Stella Bowen's Provencal Conversation, 1936. Picture: Supplied

Unlike numerous publications such as The Edwardians - Secrets and Desires, a book based on an excellent exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2004 that surveyed a whole phenomenon in Australian cultural life, Intrépide examines the activities of only Australian women artists, and a select few of them at that.

The authors, husband-and-wife pair Clem Gorman and Therese Gorman, who are newcomers to writing about the visual artists, set out on their task with the passion of amateur detectives to track down their subjects for the book. They started with seven artists in mind and ended up with 28 Australian women artists who spent time in Paris in the first half of the 20th century, out of a cohort that they estimate may have amounted to about 300.

Their method of choice was governed by serendipity - some artists they had heard of before, others they stumbled across in art auction catalogues or were suggested to them by friends. The final hit list is Dorrit Black, Stella Bowen, Ethel Carrick, Evelyn Chapman, Grace Crowley, Anne Dangar, Bessie Davidson, Moya Dyring, Madge Freeman, Bessie Gibson, Agnes Goodsir, Anne Alison Greene, Vida Lahey, Dora Meeson, Mary Cockburn Mercer, Alice Muskett, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Kathleen O'Connor, Margaret Olley, Ada May Plante, Margaret Preston, Betty Quelhurst, Iso Rae, Gladys Reynell, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Constance Stokes, Jessie Traill and Marie Tuck.

The book is prefaced by a short, spirited foreword by the well-known Sydney artist Wendy Sharpe, who herself divides her time between beautiful Paris and the less beautiful Australian harbour city, and who is apparently the subject of a future monograph by these two authors. A chatty general essay by the Gormans extolling the virtues of Paris, its art schools, café culture and artistic milieu follows Sharpe's introduction. It is written from an almost a voyeuristic tourist perspective, mentioning some of the women artists that had been selected with snips of information about the included artists, such as "many were lesbians, maybe as many as half".

This is followed by 28 shortish biographical essays, one devoted to each artist, and ranging in length between about 1,500 to 3,000 words. The reproductions, one for each artist, are small and generally of a poor quality. The authors are critical of what has already been published on the topic as being written for "art professionals" and state their aim as to attract a "wider readership".

In the entries, art historical scholarship is combined with newspaper and radio journalism, information drawn from auction catalogues, occasional chats with friends, Wikipedia entries, blogs and anonymous Internet comment. All of this is presented without proper source evaluation - if someone said something, then the opinion becomes fact. All content is honestly documented, but rarely is it evaluated or checked for relevance. There is plenty of pointless speculation, like how would an artist's career have been different if she had not been married to another artist, as in the case of Dora Meeson and Ethel Carrick-Fox. Some of the selected artists like Bessie Davidson spent most of their lifetime in France, others like Gladys Reynell and Betty Quelhurst a year or less.

The book sparkles with personal insights, such as Iso Rae: "If she was timid and shy, as was said of her, her art was bold as she, perhaps, was not, as well as warm and sensitive." In contrast, "Ada May Plante was a sensitive, highly talented, dedicated artist whose art, we believe, enriches the canon. Her apparent unwillingness to self-promote may have led to her being less valued, publicly, than her work may be thought to deserve." While someone like Anne Dangar "was a complex person, but her art was simple and clear". Sometimes the authors adopt a proselytising tone, chiding Australian artists for not travelling to Paris; for example, they write, "We are pleased to see that Western Australia had produced at least one local artist [Kathleen O'Connor] who had made it to Paris."

The book would benefit from a proper academic edit to get around some of the confusion in entries like that on Bessie Gibson (p.24) and an index would be a boon for many readers.

Certainly, very many Australian artists, including women artists, experienced the lure of Paris, and at a considerable personal sacrifice accepted the challenge and made what was sometimes a difficult and dangerous journey. The authors share this passion for Paris, and with an investigative zeal they explore the adventures of these 28 Australian women artists (some of whom are not that well known in the broader community) in that fabled city.

This story Women artists bewitched by Paris first appeared on The Canberra Times.