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This week’s curator’s choice is in conversation with artist Jesse Jones and actress and artist Una Kavanagh. Jesse Jones selected this painting as part of her exhibition No More Fun and Games in the Hugh Lane Gallery 2016, click here to listen
The Woman with the Puppets (c.1915) is something of an enigma. In this intriguing painting, a woman lies naked on a bed with a puppet in one hand and another four cast aside on a low table. The puppets are all suited male figures; one of which appears to be a lawyer. An Irish Times columnist wrote in 1935 that, “newcomers invariably paused long enough to speculate upon its meaning.” At that time, the work was no longer on display. It was rediscovered, in a sense, in 2016 when it was included in a selection of works from the collection in Jesse Jones’ exhibition, No More Fun and Games.
Gloag was born in London to Scottish parents in 1865. She began her studies St. John's Wood Art School, the Slade School of Fine Art and the South Kensington Schools, but ill health intervened. She then took private instruction in the studio of M.W. Ridley and later studied with Raphaël Collin in Paris, where she said that she received more good from her fellow-workers than from anything M. Collin ever said or suggested.
Gloag’s health problems affected her ability to work, although James Greig wrote in The Magazine of Art, “Despite her suffering, however, she is cheery in spirit, clear and active in mind, and full of enthusiasm for her work.” The liveliness and vigour of her work were praised by contemporary reviewers, which is certainly evident in The Woman with the Puppets.
She was included in the British Pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 1899, 1912 and 1914. She exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1893 and 1916; many of the works shown had literary or mythological themes. She also worked as an illustrator and stained glass designer. Earlier works were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, while later works, such as The Woman with the Puppets exhibit a more modern approach.
After her death in London in 1917, her sister M R Gloag donated this painting to Dublin and gave seven drawings to the British Museum and one painting to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Otherwise, she is not well represented in public collections. Had her sister not gifted these works, Isobel Gloag’s work would be even less visible today.
The Victoria and Albert’s Review of the Principal Acquisitions during the Year for 1921 recorded the donation, using language reflective of historic prejudices about art made by women: “The late Miss Gloag’s painting displays a boldness and vigour which is unusual in the work of women artists.”
As part of her 2016 Hugh Lane Gallery exhibition, No More Fun and Games, Jesse Jones introduced a Feminist Parasite Institution to the gallery. This included a collaborative curatorial team that explored how art by women has been valued historically. The group chose to display a number of works from the collection by women, including The Woman with the Puppets. The painting caught the imagination of many visitors. The inclusion of Gloag, an artist previously unknown to many, encouraged us to look again and to reassess the hierarchy of pioneering artists in the early 20th century and the assumptions of what is significant.
In the Sunday Times review of No More Fun and Games in April 2016, Cristín Leech described The Woman with the Puppets as a “remarkable painting, not least because of its magnificent display of female self-absorption and contentedness. Twenty-first century naked selfie-taking, female-empowerment-mongers eat your heart out: here is an image of a happy, naked woman, playing with puppets like a god…” Leech described it as “an incontrovertible statement of ownership of space and of self. There is no shame, only freedom — in every cell. Unlike… any number of images of naked women to be found in galleries and museums the world over, Gloag’s depiction is of a woman as a self-sufficient individual, woman as person not object, woman as an active player not a symbol.”