by Alicia Foster. Lund Humphries, December 2019. 128 p. ill. ISBN 9781848223707 (h/c), $69.99.
Reviewed May 2020
Margot McIlwain Nishimura, Dean of Libraries, Rhode Island School of Design, firstname.lastname@example.org
Radical Women accompanied the exhibition of the same name at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, England (November 2, 2019 to February 23, 2020). A succinct, illustrated narrative, rather than a scholarly catalog with individual entries, the publication presents a compelling story in a fluid prose accessible to both general and specialized audiences. The subject is the painter Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939), whose circle included the more famous Paule Vézelay (1892-1984) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). Her suicide on the eve of WWII likely kept Dismorr from achieving equal recognition, but Alicia Foster, art historian and curator of the exhibition, makes a convincing case for reconsideration of her place in early twentieth-century British art.
From circa 1903 to 1939, one of the most turbulent periods in the last century, Dismorr pivoted often from one avant-garde movement to another, with her subjects likewise shifting back and forth between the personal and political and the figural and abstract. The six chapters of Foster’s book proceed in roughly chronological order, each covering a distinct episode in Dismorr’s creative career and the artists with whom she lived, worked, published, and exhibited at the time. They encompass her training at London’s prestigious Slade School (1903-1906) and later at the Académie de la Palette in Paris; her participation in the early 1910s with Post-Impressionist Rhythm group exhibitions and publications; her encounter with Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, whose 1914 manifesto was signed by Dismorr; her turn, under the influence of Ezra Pound, to writing during WWI, with poems in Blast, The Little Review, and The London Mercury; her return to figuration in the 1920s as a member of the London Group and the Seven and Five Society; and the swing back to abstraction in the mid 1930s and her participation in anti-fascist shows and publications.
Foster also includes an afterword (in which we learn about Dismorr’s suicide and the fate of her estate), index, suggestions for further reading, and several appendices that help contextualize Dismorr’s creative output and the artistic and literary company she kept. These appendices include a selection of her poems from 1915 to 1935, a two-page timeline with key moments in her life and in world history, and biographical sketches of fourteen female contemporaries, some familiar, like Vézelay and Hepworth, and others who really should be better known, such as the only other female Vorticist and Dismorr’s life-long friend Helen Saunders (1885-1973). The resulting publication would make an excellent addition to any library wishing to strengthen their holdings on female artists and modernist movements.