In memory of women artists time forgot

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Clearly, it is never too late to be politically incorrect. It is all of six years since Jude Burkhauser produced her doctorate, exhibition and book about the "Glasgow girls", with its damning catalogue of devalued women artists, underrated while they were alive, and dismissed when they were dead. Chief saint and martyr was Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, whose fame has always been buried somewhere under that of her husband Charles Rennie.

Six years, and yet Juliet Kinchin (of Glasgow School of Art) can point out to gasps of recognition that Glasgow still calls the house on Gilmorshill the "Mackintosh" and not the "Mackintosh's" house. That was one of the many happy perceptions in her illustrated talk on women artists that followed the premiere of TAG's Artist Unknown, though they were run a close second by her casual gesture towards a lock of Margaret's celebrated auburn hair.

The play has been specially commissioned from Sue Glover to mark, as if an excuse were needed, Glasgow's year of visual art. Apart from a handsome early-retirement package, I cannot think of anything more likely to delight art teachers the country over.

It makes the same plea for art in daily life that was made by the Mackintoshes and the designer-artist school they helped create. It preaches the same philosophy that a hundred years ago made coffee houses and schools into art-lovers' houses. It does so by mysteriously introducing the proselytising Margaret Mackintosh and mid-century artist Joan Eardley into the life of a contemporary art student.

The two artists seem an unlikely pairing at first sight, the one a student of symbolism, the other of social realism; the one decorating a school, the other painting the children that attended it. And though they begin in sisterly love for the young art student, and join in urging her to "paint, whatever the distractions, every day", only Eardley had the need, or the strength, to follow their own advice.

The contemporary student does not want for her distractions, in her moneyless life in a high-rise block, her would-be lover oblivious, and her mother pregnant. Even to such a one, the artist's flame is passed on, and the student sees the "capabilities" in the downside of her life.

Boldly directed by TAG's Tony Graham, the 45-minute dialogue is robustly interpreted by Pene Herman-Smith as a four-square "take and give it on the chin" Joan Eardley, against the more spiritual and sensitive Margaret of Mair Gillespie. Both actresses hint at autobiographies too detailed to be explained here.

Which is where the post-play activities have a major part to play. TAG wants its educational activities to "flow out of the theatre". Every performance, in public theatre as well as school hall, as the production tours from Dumfries to Aberdeen, is to be followed by a talk by an art lecturer, or a workshop and discussion led by TAG's two drama workers.

It is good to see them focusing so sharply on the impulse that drives their best work; TAG is a company with a social conscience, and in Artist Unknown they are revisiting familiar ground, in particular the courage and integrity of the artist who speaks to the common man, voiced here by some uncommon women.

TAG's tour of Artist Unknown continues to Dumfries (March 9) Livingston, Paisley, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, finishing in Haddington (March 23). Tel: 0141 429 2877.

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