The phenomenon of artists societies in Australia is often overlooked. Some of these groups can trace long histories that pre-date their current exile from the artistic mainstream.
The Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors was founded in 1902 and is unique. Its history is coherent and distilled as gender provides a unifying cross-generational factor. On the other hand the MSWPS accurately reflects significant shifts of art and taste in Australia up to the 1960s.
The Society began as a monthly gathering of ex-students from the National Gallery School. The earliest members were very diverse and not all are well known in current art history.
A number of early members defined themselves in relation to the plein air or Heidelberg School and were associated with the male artists whose names are more familiar.
As well as the plein air movement, the MSWPS reflects the strong interest in decorative art that enlivened 1890s and 1900s Australia. The work of these craftworkers is polished and professional.
By the 1920s, the Society had significantly changed its profile by assimilating members of the strong generation of professional women artists emerging from the Melbourne National Gallery School. Significant women artists were invited to join. There were representatives of both the Meldrum tonal school and modernism.
The current exhibition focuses on past members of the MSWPS, representing some of the most highly regarded women artists in public memory in Victoria. The exhibition draws many exhibits from the regional galleries of Victoria, especially those of Central Victoria and demonstrates the important collaborative efforts of these bodies to preserve the by-ways of art history.
In this mission the MSWPS can claim some responsibility. A member, Elsie Barlow, was part of the group of women who conceived the idea of and lobbied for the establishment of the Castlemaine Art Gallery. Two of the many artists who have bequeathed works and funds to the gallery, Sybil Craig and Madge Anderson, were also longstanding MSWPS members.