SWA 156th Annual Exhibition 2017, Mall Galleries from a Painter's POV
There is a theory about why the concept of women only exhibitions should be obsolete in contemporary art scene. There is another theory about why societies of women artists are still important in our times of gender equality. So what's in the name - the Society of Women Artists (SWA) today? With that question in mind I've approached the best person to shed the light on the topic - the President of SWA Sue Jelley.
Surrounded by staggering number of artworks (total of 406) on display at Mall Galleries, the President and I sit down for a quick interview. Coming from an accomplished artist as herself, and as an artist-to artist dialogue, I am eager to hear about Sue's view on this topic. She immediately points out that there is indeed a lot of controversy around the society's existence, but one has to keep in mind the history of how SWA evolved from it's origin in 1857.
And evolution indeed! - very much reflected through how the society was named. Founded as the Society of Female Artists in times when it was considered unseemly for women to paint for public display. At Society's first exhibition, some artists chose to hide their true identities for fear of social recrimination. However, as the access to professional training for women artists improved, along with the higher standards came the second name-change. In 1969 it became the Society of Lady Artists. Finally, in 1900, the Society embraced the twentieth century with the present name SWA.
In President's own words, there is no doubt that through the decades the Society has nurtured its members from weakness to strength. Despite the difficulties of early years when women really didn't have a voice, the Society travelled well into the 21st century, attracting some of most noted and talented artists of our time. Today, the Society remains as popular as ever with 2000 submissions for the annual Open exhibitions, specially encouraging the young artists to use the opportunity to kick-start their carriers. However, the President adds, there is one thing that is still against the Society - and that is to be perceived as less serious just because it is for women. That would have never happened if the society was just for men' and although not exactly in the art world, there are indeed plenty of such exclusive clubs and organizations still around.
I am asking Sue, in her own opinion, whether the existence of SWA still justified today. She answers that personally she wouldn't recommend new female societies today, just because the many existing societies in UK are mixed and are rather about about genre than gender. But, she adds, she hopes that SWA as institution continues to carry the tradition and let that tradition become modern though the work of its members.
My final question is what the President thinks about being a female artist herself, and she answers without hesitation that she doesn't like labels and wouldn't be called a female artist; she is just painter. She says it with a smile and a warm glimpse in her eyes as she hurries away to take care of her many tasks and duties.
And so my eyes turn to the exhibition itself, and the first impression is that there is no subject- matter to consider as being too small or insignificant. It covers broad range of styles and expression. Abstract or figurative, the main criteria for juri's choice seemes to be that the work has to be substantial and/or exciting. The variety of media is quite impressive - painting, sculpture, drawings, etchings, mixed media; with the exception of photo and installations. Works are divided in two large groups: members of SWA and guest-exhibitors, of which I am a representative. The walls are literally covered with works, and although the placement is carefully thought through, it is nevertheless overwhelming - very much like Summer Exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts.
Confronted with great variety of techniques, I decided to organize the works that fought my eye into categories by use of media: oil/acrylics, drawing/pastels, mixed media and sculpture.
Still life, oil:
Portraits and figure are very strong represented, but here is what I found attractive for different reasons:
Last landscape was: Tina Stokes, Whispering Waters - an pleasure for the eye in its impressionistic minimalism.
DRAWING AND PRINT
Personally, I have a deep rooted respect for watercolours. It is the most beautiful, but hellishly difficult medium. I definitely found some mastery of that:
Mixed media works:
The is an abundance of sculptures to every taste at the show, but I was attracted to and greatly enjoyed a very particular type of sculptures - depicting mythological or fantasy creatures.
As a conclusion I would say that with it's massive body of work, the exhibition is bound to have something for everyone. The work I covered is very subjectively chosen, and my selection neither reflects nor does justice to a plethoria of work on display. That is said, there is one thing that doesn't make sense - and that it the extremely short duration of the exhibition. I am sure there must be a good reason for it, but it must feel unfair to the exhibitors. So much to see, so little time.
The exhibition lasts until July 9th. For more information about the history of SWA, their work and future submission calls, go to
Natalie Holland is a contemporary realist artist, best known for her highly skillful ability to portraiture humanity in her work.
She received her education in St.Petersburg Academy of Arts, started her career as artist in Norway and, after attending the studio of Odd Nerdrum in Oslo, proceeded to exhibit internationally, with gallery shows in Norway, Italy, USA and UK.
In 2007 she moved to London, where she currently works. Here, she exhibited at BP Portrait Award 2009 and several times with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Royal Institute of Oil Painters and Federation of British Artists at Mall Galleries.
Natalie Holland's work may be seen soon in Chicago at the Zhou B Art Center for Woman as Warrior group exhibition curated by Didi Menendez and Sergio Gomez.