CHICHESTER, England – Men, filthy beasts that we are, have a lot to answer for. Sometimes it seems that we can tolerate good women only just as long as they serve us well as towering cake-makers, genial skivvies, languidly biddable Muses, cheeky waitresses, or useful behind-the-arras funders of art movements in the cultural vanguard, steered authoritatively and confidently into the future by men. Take the history of Vorticism, for example.
Wyndham Lewis, that gruff, vituperative outsider, was prime mover of that belligerent movement. When the first issue of his magazine, Blast!, was published in 1914, it contained a fierce manifesto blessing and blasting all over the place: Out with the old! In with the new! Two of the 11 signatories to that manifesto were women. One, the painter Jessica Dismorr, contributed some remarkable poetry too.
Twenty-something years later, Lewis seemed to be suffering from a bout of misogynistic amnesia. In a book published in 1938, Dismorr’s name had been expunged from the public record of the history of Vorticism altogether. Was this something to do with Lewis’s quarrel with modernity? Yes. So let the women suffer. Later on, in a book of his collected art writings published in 1964, his memory, as if by some miracle, returns: he remembers Dismorr as one of two women – the other was her friend Helen Saunders – as a part of Vorticism’s history after all. Well, he actually puts it a touch more self-servingly than that, as you might anticipate. Here are his words: “Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders might wish to go down to history in my company.” Oh that two mere women should be so uniquely blessed! No, Lewis was never quite to forget that the world of Vorticism pivoted about him.
Yes, the painter Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939), generally speaking, has been a footnote in the history of English Modernism. And often a footnote in books about Lewis himself. The exhibition, Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries at Pallant House Gallery, a museum that prides itself on showing off the best of 20th-century British art, set in an 18th-century house in a pretty English county town, tries to set the record straight. It’s a remarkable, praiseworthy forensic effort, which has been years in the making. What is more, the book that accompanies the exhibition helps us to understand Dismorr as never before. How? By printing all the poetry by her that Alicia Foster, the book’s author and the curator of this show, has managed to find. Some of it had to be transcribed from handwriting. That discovery reveals that Dismorr, who was a contemporary of Ezra Pound’s, could write poetry the equal of his.
Why is this poetry such a help to us, though? Because its moods, its angles of attack, help us to understand Dismorr’s innermost impulses, her struggles to establish herself as a fiercely intelligent equal, in a world where so many of the cards seemed to be stacked against her. At least she had one thing on her side: money. After studying at the Slade, she painted in France. After her engagement with Vorticism, she entered into other alignments with groupings of importance – from Rhythm and the Seven and Five Society to the London Group – in the long and convoluted evolution of Modernism, and began friendships with painters whose work is also included in this show: Paule Vézelay, Anne Estelle Rice, Ethel Wright, Sophie Fedorovich, and Saunders, who is well represented here. The story takes in politics, the long and painful battle for women’s suffrage, and much else.
Dismorr committed suicide in 1939. Things got worse for her reputation after that. Her library was dispersed, her paintings lost or neglected, her writings forgotten. Very few of her paintings entered institutions that would look after them. Most of the ones that survived disappeared into private collections. Foster has been on the road like the best of bloodhounds, seeking them out, flattering, cajoling, twisting arms. She has suffered acute frustration along the way. Dismorr’s very last painting is owned by a museum in Birmingham. It’s in storage. They refused to let it leave. I guess its custodians must have guessed that it would be happier in the dark, not being looked at. Why disturb things for the sake of mere knowledge?
There is much to praise about this show, and there is not a little to regret. About 60 works by Dismorr are in it, but this represents barely a fitfully spasmodic snapshot of what she may have made. So much has disappeared. And so we are afforded glimpses of her painting when it was very good and entirely of its time – several scenes of rural life in rural France, for example, where she paints in fierce, pooling colors, thickly, blockishly, in swim with the Fauves – and, at other times, when it is well off the boil. A little later, most of that color drains away. “I have put myself on the side of all the severities,” she writes.
How much of the very best of her work has been lost? How much more considerable a painter might she have been had she lived longer, and her work valued in the way that the work of so many men was valued? The glimpse is always frustratingly partial, fitful, with great gaps. She swings from a kind of figurative primitivism to abstraction, and then to figuration again when the 1920s seemed to demand a backwards step, and then returns to abstraction once more in her last paintings. The single canvas here held in the Tate’s collection, “Abstract Composition” (c.1915), has a wonderful formal tension about it. Its authority commands attention. It hits a note of beautiful, almost clinical austerity. She was very keen on austerity.
Jessica Dismorr was a very strong woman, and in her correspondence – and indeed in her dealings – with Lewis, you can tell that she gave as good as she got. And in spite of the fact that this is a maddeningly partial glimpse of her achievements, she has now been successfully inserted into the ever-evolving story of 20th-century painting.
Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries continues at Pallant House Gallery (8-9 North Pallant, Chichester, England) through February 23, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Alicia Foster in partnership with Pallant House Gallery. Foster’s book of the same title is published by Lund Humphries.