Bessie Davidson was one of a cohort of female Australian artists who, at the turn of the nineteenth century, sought to expand their lives and artistic careers by travelling to the renowned cultural centres of Europe, most notably Paris and London. Many artists returned to Australia bringing their matured artistic style to an Australian audience. Davidson was one of the few who chose to remain in Europe, firmly establishing herself within the vibrant artistic milieu of Paris’s Montparnasse. Over the course of her career, Davidson received many accolades and awards including being made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour – the highest award conferred by the French government.
Whilst Davidson’s work has been largely overlooked in Australia, stories of Bessie Davidson’s life as an artist living in Paris were a frequent part of conversations in artist Sally Smart’s childhood home in rural South Australia. Bessie was Sally’s great aunt – her legacy empowered this renowned Australian artist to follow her own artistic ambitions.
This exhibition brings together more 50 works that highlight Davidson’s ‘modern French impressionist’ style of painting – with light filled domestic interiors, landscapes and portraits of women. In addition, the gallery has invited Sally Smart to create a new body of work responding to and developing upon the cultural legacy of Davidson as a pioneering female South Australian artist – firmly placing the work of this ground-breaking artist back into the story of Australian art history.
Smart, who recently retraced Davidson’s life in Paris, has worked with leading dancers Deanne Butterworth and Jo Lloyd to create a new cross-disciplinary video installation that represents Davidson’s relationship with lifelong friend, and rumoured lover, Margaret Preston. This newly commissioned work “embodies the timeless psychological tensions for these women, grappling with the avant-garde in art and life, at a traumatic period in human history – with war, isolation, gender, and modernity,” and will be shown alongside a survey of key works from Smart’s Australian and international collections.