The National Gallery’s recent purchase of an artwork by the artist Artemisia Gentileschi only served to highlight the scarcity of major paintings by women in major collections in the UK and elsewhere.
It’s doubly refreshing, therefore, to hear news of the Bethlem Museum of the Mind’s latest exhibition. The Four Ages of Women is based on a simple premise: gather together a series of artworks depicting women at key points in their lives – and ensure that each picture is composed by a women. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking but it somehow is.
All too often in the history of western art, responsibility for the representation of women has rested solely on the shoulders of the men who have painted them. Up until the 20th century, works of art by women were rare.
Bethlem’s new show attempts to redress this imbalance by bringing together what works exist and using them to explore how women have depicted their own sex over the last two hundred years.
The Four Ages of Women includes an all-female cast of artists including Marion Patrick, Cynthia Pell, Maureen Scott, Patricia Smith, Linda Bamford, Stephanie Bates, Lisa Biles, Madge Gill and Bibi Herrera. Talented artists all, many have struggled to gain the recognition they deserve in what is still a male dominated art world.
The exhibition hones in on the lives of its subjects at four key stages in their lives – childhood, youth, middle and old age. In doing so, the Four Ages of Women explores themes of youth and aging, mental health, and the pursuit of eternal youth.
It is not surprising, given the museum’s prior history, that the exhibition should explore mental health. The building which houses the museum was once a part of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam, as it was commonly known. The hospital |(it still exists today) is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world, with a history dating back to the 1300s.
With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that the exhibition has focused on mental health. Indeed, most of the paintings come from the institution’s own collection. Amongst them are several pieces by artists who were once patients in the hospital.
Highlights of the show include a series of pictures of women in the throes of mental illness. The images were commissioned by a Victoria Physician named Sir Alexander Morison. Morrison was an advocate of that school of medicine that believed that complex mental health issues could be diagnosed by studying the patient’s facial features, expressions and body language.
Morison split these maladies of the mind into four categories: Mania, Monomania, Dementia and Idiocy. The drawings that the doctor commissioned while at Bethlem were designed to capture the various signs of each illness.
The Four Ages of Woman exhibition will be at the Bethlem Museum of the Mind from the 8th of January until the 25th of April 2020. More information about the exhibition can be found here.
For information on other great art exhibitions in London, please click here.