<i>You Are Here </i> by Grace Cossington Smith.

You Are Here by Grace Cossington Smith.

If you had an overseas visitor and wanted to display to her the women artists of our country, where would you take her? Perhaps the 20th - 21st century Australian collection at the Art Gallery of NSW.

 And what would you see?

At the beginning, a room bursting with Grace Cossington Smiths and Margaret Prestons, including meditations on domesticity and early 20th century mass consumerism like The Lacquer Room and Implement Blue. You might marvel with your foreigner at The Prince and Reinforcement: Troops Marching, where the female gaze, banished from sharing in the prizes and accolades of public life, watches the sinister events of the period pass at a distance like clouds or stars.

Elles: Community Night Out  at the Seattle Art Museum in October. (Joshua Trujillo)

Elles: Community Night Out at the Seattle Art Museum in October. (Joshua Trujillo)

And then what would happen?

Well, you would become increasingly embarrassed. Walking onwards through the roughly nine rooms that comprise the collection, the female gaze seems to diminish until it all but vanishes. After a couple of Olleys, mid century abstraction sees Grace Crowley swamped by Passmores and Balsons. The next room celebrates men: the muddy palette of Nolan, Williams, Boyd, and Tucker, alongside more men, Brack, Tuckson, Fairwether and Klippel.

The final two rooms, dedicated to the last thirty years of art in this country, contain 44 works. Two are authored by women.

Too late you would realise that women’s work is about as prominent at the Art Gallery of NSW as at a Silicon Valley hackathon or the dumbbell room of the Manly Sea Eagles.

This trend is not unique to our country, and has seen the birth of the Elles movement – exhibitions in which a public gallery re-hangs its permanent collection with work exclusively by women. Launched this October at the Seattle Art Museum, Elles: SAM—Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists has seen the gallery box its Pollocks, Warhols, Johns and Kiefers, replacing them with works by Pollock’s far smarter wife Lee Krasner, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The SAM show is a copycat of the 2010 Elles exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and indeed, part of the Pompidou’s exhibit is showing at SAM during the same period.

A knee jerk reaction to the Elles phenomenon might be to recoil at the perpetuation of politically correct error, to discard the idea as curation grounded by sex rather than by skill or theme or theory. This would be to ignore all of the historic effects of repression on women artists: everything from the lack of money for materials, the improvisation of technique due to limited access to practical institutions, and restrictions on subject matter caused by incarceration in the domestic sphere.

The Tate Britain’s retrospective of brother and sister artists Augustus and Gwen John from a few years ago demonstrated this contrast perfectly. The Johns, having identical beginnings, offer a near perfect ethnography of how sex affects artistic output. Where Augustus’ portraits were on epic canvases, Gwen’s work had far humbler dimensions. Where Augustus drew himself as a satyr and also as the lover a harem of fecund gypsy wives, Gwen stuck to chairs and interiors. Where Augustus was wealthy, lauded on the cover of Time and elected to the Royal Academy, Gwen ended up living a relatively meager existence in the suburbs of Paris, and had to support her early career through nude modelling.

As a reviewer said of the 2004 retrospective: “He was bigger, she was deeper. He drew himself as a faun, she drew herself as a nun. He drank, ate and rollicked on an epic scale, she sometimes starved alone in her room.”

But the Elles exhibits reveal not only these themes. They have also been used – at least in France – as a moment of national amnesty. The Centre Pompidou bravely refused to include in its exhibit any art it did not own. It aired its dirty laundry, revealing just how pauce its collection of women artists was. Indeed, in the five years preceding the Elles show the museum dedicated 40 per cent of its acquisition budget (why not 50 per cent?) to buy works made by women, just so that it would have enough art to hang. Works by women now comprise 17 per cent of the Pompidou’s permanent collection, still scandalous when you consider the museum only collects art produced after 1905.

SAM has not had the courage (or money) to follow suit, and has included under the banner of its Elles exhibit a number of works borrowed from the Gagosian Gallery and private collections.

But done properly the Elles phenomenon can be a moment for reflection, revealing the true history of bias in large public galleries and presenting alternative art histories.

So, what would it look like if the Art Gallery of NSW followed suit? Currently, if you removed all the art by men from the 20th – 21st century Australian galleries I suspect you’d be lucky to fill two of the roughly nine rooms. Two of ten if you count the peculiar Lowy, Gonski Gallery – with its one mammoth Janet Laurence sitting like an awkward apology in a room full of male authored landscapes. If Grace Cossington Smith had become a schoolteacher you might fill only one of ten rooms.

There is, however, plenty hiding in storage. I wonder what it might look like if the Art Gallery of NSW decided to air its dirty laundry? With the 2012 Dundas Memorial Lecture picking up on this theme this month, perhaps it is time to find out.