Exploring the ‘feminine sentence’

Lesley Banks: exploring the ‘feminine sentence’ *

This catalogue bears witness to the variety of ways in which art is experienced. The testaments included here show how a painting somehow has its own life, before, during and after its creation in the studio. They range from a statement by Lesley about the process of making art to its review on the gallery wall. In between, we hear from those who appear in her work and the memories and emotions which are stirred by viewing. Then there are words from those who live daily with one (or more) of Lesley’s paintings – her work hasn’t only entered their homes, but it has become part of their homes. It comes to mean new things and create new memories that were not intended, but are nonetheless welcomed, by the artist. Subjective and objective are not fixed entities, and the more we can recognise this, and their interaction, the better our appreciation of producing and consuming art will be.

My own interest in Lesley’s work is, at the very least, three fold. Firstly, I have an art historical interest surrounding inheritance and lineage; secondly, there is a sociological interest by which history and biography are understood as a continuing process of human social relationships; and thirdly she is my friend. These interests do not necessarily exist in this hierarchical order. I will try to stick to the first two of these for the time being, although it is perhaps inevitable that anecdote will find its way in.

There has been a tradition in art historical writing that follows the lives of the artists in a linear mode where artistic inspiration appears as a gift given by fathers to sons. Indeed, when I first began studying, Lesley chided my soft spot for Ernst Gombrich’s “Story of Art” remarking that there is not one woman mentioned in this volume.1 She felt strongly about this and rightly so. This tradition has of course been subjected to a great deal of critique from feminist writers within and without the discipline; Linda Nochlin, Griselda Pollock and Janet Wolff immediately come to mind. Thus we are now in possession of a wealth of literature which documents mothers and daughters, re-evaluating accounts of modernity in which women’s experiences have been largely invisible.

In particular, Wolff’s book of essays, “Feminine Sentences”2 provides me with a starting point for thinking about Lesley’s work. The title comes from Virginia Woolf, who noted that there could be such a thing as a ‘feminine sentence’ within the work of women modernist writers. The ‘feminine sentence’ embodies a knowledge and experience, a structure of feeling that is specifically female3. In a process of inserting, rediscovering and reassessing, the contribution which women’s voices make to our understanding of the social world has been emphasised. Marshall Berman4 points to Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (published in 1961) noting that her account of daily life in the city reveals that “women had something to tell us about the city and the life we shared, and that we had impoverished our own lives as well as theirs by not listening to them till now.”5

The life of our city is rich in poetic and marvellous subjects” said Baudelaire. His insistence that modernism was to be found in the streets is, as Wolff suggests, bound up with heroic male figures.6 The flaneur, who by virtue of his sex could move between private and public spaces with ease, constructed a city narrative from his idle observations that was essentially male and exclusive. It took the adoption of a man’s name and his attire before George Sands could report on the freedom she found in sturdy boots, “solid on the pavement” bringing with them the ability to stroll the city alone. In contrast to this however, Wolff suggests an invisible flaneuse who she sees in the works of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassat and Gwen John. She comments on their use of space, and specifically their focus on the domestic interior, the balcony and the embankment as a refraction of their gendered experience of modernity:

The juxtaposition of two spatial systems in the canvas is peculiar to women’s paintings, while similar works by men allow apparently free access to the world beyond the window or the balcony.7

This idea seems to me to have a subtle note in Lesley’s work. The boundaries between the private and the public are ever present. A tenement room encloses, sometimes as a comfort and elsewhere as a stifling cell. An open window may bring a glimpse of the city beyond and allow for fresh air, but the breeze can also carry new threats. Teapots, trifles, dolls houses and birdcages evoke the literal trappings of domesticity, yet their order and careful arrangement into still lives is challenged. Fire escapes from the hearth, pots boil over, a waste paper bin smoulders and kettles are left to whistle – all of them sounding the alarm of something more urgent, unseen. ‘Complacency’ is not to be found in Lesley’s vocabulary.

It is too facile to suggest that she simply represents her domestic life in tableau form. This is true only in part. She does know the private domestic space, and intimately so. The concept of ‘home’ and its implications as a place of safety has always been present in her work. More recently, this has become something of a preoccupation, returning to West Princes Street, visiting new lives in old settings. Yet she also visibly inhabits an art world where this privacy is displayed in a very public way. The two spaces collide ambiguously on her canvases. Every involvement with one place risks new detachments from the other. The paintings are the result of keeping this precarious balance in check. While each painting has its own self contained narrative, and Lesley is unashamedly a story teller, there is also an underlying feminine sentence within her grammar. This is more of a whisper than a shout and to see Lesley as rigidly adhering to an art historical lineage, or tradition based solely on preceding women painters is a mistake. There is the poise and control of Renaissance Siena in her work; the attention to detail and her knowledge of northern light is shared with the Flemish masters; lastly, her evident need to connect people and place sees a firm attachment to artists such as Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864 -1916) and David Hockney.

She also offers us the edge and unease of the late Carel Weight who corresponded with Lesley, confirming and enjoying her talent. Weight commented that “all of your pictures had the hallmark of a very serious artist” and “I know nothing about you except that you like to paint the ordinary life around.” Weight despaired at what he saw at that time to be a decline in painting, noting: “It is interesting that the few good ones seem always to be women these days.”8

An understanding of the social and historical constraints surrounding the ‘woman artist’ is nonetheless present within Lesley’s structure of feeling. Her art school dissertation was aptly titled “Painters of Trifles: Women in Scottish Art History” and gained a quote in Jude Burkhauser’s “Glasgow Girls” 9 which accompanied the 1990 exhibition of the same name at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. A ‘sell out’ show occurred in the same year with Glasgow’s Compass Gallery and marked the beginning of a longstanding relationship with both Compass and Cyril Gerber Fine Art. In a smart move that was more than a nod and a wink at the prominent New Glasgow Boys and simultaneously linked two distinct female generations, Gerber called the show “Five Girls from Glasgow”10. But ‘woman artist’ is not a label that Lesley has always found comfortable, preferring simply ‘artist’.

It is worth noting that her reluctant, but growing, acceptance of the prefix comes in tandem with the arrival of her three beautiful boys. In some ways, her work might be more accurately catalogued by reference to Jack, Jude and Josef. Breaks from work were prompted in ways that her male counterparts did not experience. Access to the culture fashioning institutions across the genders is far wider today than ever before but it is not yet equal. Each return to painting has been hard – the art world is not an easy home for anyone to dwell in. Fashions come and go, dominant trends exert themselves via the shock of the new. The celebration of Baudelaire’s ephemeral, the here today and gone tomorrow aspects in conceptual and installation art can make the painter’s life even more difficult. Confined by the traditions imposed by the medium itself, a painter has no choice but to fix moments of her own and others’ lives in time and space.

For all the tensions that this may bring, Lesley is most at home here. Painting is not just a physical act, but also a philosophy:

Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere. Where, then, are we going? Always going home.11

This retrospective account of Lesley’s career to date is incorporated into an official ‘Year of Homecoming’ and rightly makes much of a first exhibition geographically and biographically located in Lesley’s life. However, the exhibition is also prospective and it should perhaps be remembered that by virtue of her continued presence as a painter, Lesley is always going home.

1 Gombrich, E. H. (1950, 1978, 1981) The Story of Art ; Phaidon Press Limited

2 Wolff, J. (1990) Feminine Sentences; Essays on Women and Culture; Polity Press

3 ‘Structure of feeling’ is a term explored by Raymond Williams. It incorporates both artistic autonomy and the shaping role of social structure yet avoids any crude determinism.

4 Berman, M. (1982) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity; Verso, London and New York

5 Ibid. P323 (also cited in Wolff, J. (1990) p.41)

6 Wolff, J. (1990) as above, p.37

7 Wolff, J. (1990) as above, P60.

8 Private correspondence, September 1993: Weight was commenting on work shown in Beaux Art, Bath. He was especially impressed by “Toward Point” but confessed that all her paintings “brought him joy in the mornings.”

9 Burkhauser, J. (Ed.) (1990) ‘Glasgow Girls’: Women in Art and Design 1880-1920 ; Canongate Publishing, Edinburgh.

10 Five Girls From Glasgow; (1990) exhibition of work by Lesley Banks, Lesley Burr, Victoria Cassidy, Ashley Cook, and Shona Kinloch; Compass Gallery, 178 West Regent Street, Glasgow, G2 4RL.

11 Novalis, Fragments, cited in Berman, M. (1982) as above, p329.

 * Written by Alison Eldridge