Two artists and the Parisian avant-garde


Practicing across disparate mediums, styles and moments in time and space, Australian artists Bessie Davidson (1879–1965) and Sally Smart are connected not only by relation: they are also both strong feminist presences in male-dominated, avant-garde traditions. The exhibition explores these ties through over 50 paintings by Davidson and several key works by Smart.

Davidson spent most of her life in Paris, where she first moved to study in 1904 with fellow painter Margaret Preston. Her Impressionist interpretation of domestic interiors, landscapes and female portraits reflected her thriving creative surrounds. Geographically dislocated from her homeland, Davidson’s choice to remain overseas was unusual. “Davidson and other female artists of this period do not fit neatly into the ‘canon’ of art history, nor does Davidson ascribe to traditional notions of the avant-garde,” explains exhibition curator Tansy Curtin. “Yet the life she chose to lead was quite avant-garde.”

In contrast, Smart looks back in time, combining a range of mediums including performance, collage and textiles to reimagine experimental dance and other cultural histories from a feminist perspective. As Bessie Davidson’s niece, Smart was inspired by her aunt’s work. “The influence of Bessie Davidson on my identity as a young artist was profound,” reflects Smart. “My early art education enabled knowledge of Margaret Preston, compounding Davidson’s relevance and my interest in women artists and their artistic legacy.”

Smart envisions her aunt’s friendship and relations with Preston in a new video work featuring dancers Jo Lloyd and Deanne Butterworth. The dance explores “their decade-long relationship through a tumultuous time in human history and their lives as women artists in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century,” says Smart. “They were courageous artists.”

Two artists and the Parisian avant-garde
Bessie Davidson and Sally Smart
Bendigo Art Gallery
6 June—26 July

This article was originally published in our March/April 2020 print edition.

Preview Words by Michaela Bear