Tate Britain. Photo: Getty
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Alex Farquharson’s Diary: How Brexit would have ruined impressionism

The Tate Britain director talks snowmen, Frank Bowling, and art made from alligator blood.

There’s no getting away from Brexit in the news. It’s a strangely apt backdrop for the opening of the new EY-sponsored exhibition at Tate Britain (where I am director), “Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile (1870-1904)” – and one we couldn’t have foretold when we embarked on the show a few years ago. The exhibition begins with Paris in ruins during the Prussian occupation and Paris Commune and ends with the Entente Cordiale, a deal with our neighbours across the Channel that promised stability in Europe. Thousands of French people came to Britain to escape conscription, persecution, hunger, or for economic opportunity. There were no restrictions on entry.

Among them were artists, including Monet, Pissaro and Tissot, who went on to create some of the most memorable images of late-Victorian London. The story of British art and culture has always been an international one: artists from the Dutch Republic dominated the first two centuries of the art history we cover at the gallery, and this year’s Turner Prize is the most diverse and international to date. The country can feel very divided at times like this, but museums and galleries can serve as environments in which people can come together and explore their place in the world through inspirational works of art.

Alligator blood

No sooner have we opened one show than we begin installing the next. It’s exciting to see a new work by Marguerite Humeau coming together today. Marguerite, as it happens, is a young French artist living in London. It’s challenging work to install, as it involves pumping fluids around the gallery – alligator blood and snake venom I’m told. The installation is a kind of semi-scientific, semi-mythical attempt to create an elixir of life.

Art has the power to take us outside our own experience. Many artists of Humeau’s generation, influenced by how the world is being reshaped by the digital revolution, as well as the reality of accelerating climate change, are making work that seeks to reflect non-human perspectives on life. Marguerite is unusual in that she studied product design. Her smooth hi-tech-looking objects are like products from the future whose purpose is as yet unknown. They also hark back to prehistoric times and age-old indigenous beliefs. Wry humour runs through her out-there thinking.

Mapping the Atlantic

The integration of British artists into an international story is something we do with colleagues at Tate Modern too. I went to see Frank Bowling’s work in a commercial gallery show last night, where he is displayed alongside American abstract painters of the 1960s. He’s an artist we have shown most recently in “Soul of a Nation”, an exhibition that surveyed “Art in the Age of Black Power”.

Frank, who was born in Guyana, lives just round the corner from Tate Britain, so he must be our nearest international artist (he has also kept a studio in New York since the late Sixties). Haus der Kunst, a major venue in Munich, has an impressive exhibition on at the moment of his seminal “map paintings” and works from the 1980s that evoke riverbeds. I’ll be going later this month. In his maps, sprayed stencil outlines of the four Atlantic-facing continents appear over pools of hot and cool colour. They are often very large paintings and seem to encompass the experience and expanse of the whole Atlantic world.

Let there be light

Christmas advertising is already taking over the city on the commute to work. Tate’s contribution to the festivities is to invite an artist to create a new seasonal installation each year. Traditionally this has been a tree, but this year we invited Alan Kane to light the outside of the building. His response was to adorn the classical portico of Tate Britain with a hundred kitschy Christmas-themed lights: Santas, reindeer, snowmen and so on.

We have just learned that Westminster has approved planning permission – what a relief! One of our contemporary curators is now buying the lights while the technicians are readying the mesh structure on which they all will be affixed to avoid any drilling into the Grade 1 facade. It should turn heads. Yesterday we also met to begin planning how best to use our outdoor spaces during the summer holidays – young people tend to want a more social and participatory atmosphere in museums.

Flight mode

In Terminal 5 at Heathrow I’m waiting to board a flight to Washington where I have meetings at the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum – the former is a partner gallery on our current Rachel Whiteread exhibition. I’m also looking forward, while I’m there, to seeing the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Then it’s on to New York for the weekend and the opening of the David Hockney retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The show originated at Tate Britain earlier this year, where it was seen by almost half a million visitors, making it the most successful exhibition by a living artist in Tate’s history. It is David’s first retrospective in 28 years and I’m sure it will be as much of an event in New York. It was certainly a great privilege to open it in London. Time to board and switch this device to flight mode. 

“Rachel Whiteread” runs until 21 January and “Impressionists in London” until 7 May, both at Tate Britain, London SW1

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist