Everything but the kitchen sink

Linda Nochlin, in her 1988 book Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, asks, “Why are there no great female artists?” The answer is that we are looking in the wrong places. Rather than unearthing unappreciated women artists from history, or rediscovering forgotten female painters, “ the question involves shifting the ground slightly and asserting, as some contemporary feminists do, that there is a different kind of ‘greatness’ for women’s art than for men’s”.

It is a question that is central to the Pembroke Art Gallery’s first major exhibition, ‘John Bratby and Jean Cooke: Who is Slaving at the Kitchen Sink?’, which explores the creative products – and creative tensions – of the artist couple John Bratby and Jean Cooke. The exhibition is comprised of paintings drawn from the Royal Academy, the Piano Nobile Gallery, the Government Art Collection, and a range of private collections – including those of Lincoln College and St Hilda’s College – and is due to open on 30th May with a lecture by the art historian Dr Greg Salter.

The impetus of the exhibition is “something of a riddle”, says the Pembroke Gallery’s curator, Sarah Hegenbart. It began with the discovery of an unknown painting in the Pembroke College library, which bore no label and no mention in any archival records. Once the dust had been blown off the impressionistic, dark-toned image of a woman painting in a studio, it became clear from the style of the work that it was by John Bratby, famous British modernist, and founder of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of realism.

“We couldn’t figure out who the woman in the painting was”, Hegenbart recalls, “but we had the suspicion that it was Bratby’s first wife, Jean Cooke, who was a painter in her own right”. Research revealed that this had been a violent relationship. Bratby, apparently, would often paint over his wife’s canvases in anger, and his depictions of Cooke chart the disintegration of their relationship: she would later describe how “he always painted me as a very old woman”.

Research revealed that this had been a violent relationship

The breakdown of their marriage is chronicled, whether consciously or not, in their paintings of each other, and is highlighted in Pembroke’s exhibition. On one wall hang portraits from the couple’s early years, depicting their children and family life. Hegenbart describes these as “very loving… they seem young and excited and passionate about their art”. But follow the paintings chronologically, and watch as the portraits become darker: Bratby and Cooke begin to depict each other as haggard, angry, and old.

“We were also interested in charting aesthetic parallels between the artists”, says Hegenbart. The aforementioned  ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of realism, the foundation of which made Bratby famous, made prominent the detritus of middle class life. His work The Vice and Tools in the Pembroke exhibition provides a stark example: the strong contrasts and thick brushstrokes make clear that the tool box is the sole focus of this picture. Cooke differed stylistically from the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school, but her paintings Fruit and Tin and Hand with Matches demonstrate a softer, arguably more feminine interpretation of the couple’s everyday surroundings.

Stark and dirty, light and soft. It is a contrast that reappears in the couple’s later works, and can be seen particularly in Hegenbart’s pairing of two portraits by each artist, both of women. Cooke’s rendering of the former St Hilda’s principal, Mary Bennet, is soft- focussed and respectful. There is a deliberate ‘ugliness’, however, in Bratby’s portrait of Kathy Wilkes. She is painted like the The Vice and Tools, in contrasting greens and blues. The painting seems to be simply tone and form, disconnected from its female subject.

Stark and dirty, light and soft

What makes an artist great? We may well ask this of John Bratby, who became something of a celebrity in the 1970s, with a raft of television appearances, and his works rumoured to be collected by Paul McCartney. But, the Pembroke Gallery argues, it is Jean Cooke who more deserves the title of ‘great’. The eye naturally returns to the back wall of the gallery, where Cooke’s Cinema Paradiso hangs. It is an example of her later work, and the starkly modern, visually piercing image speaks of an artist who has finally come of age. Pembroke Gallery’s first major exhibition leaves us with the thought that yes, there are of course great female artists. But sometimes they need to be taken out of their male counterparts’ shadows.

Claudia Zwar is the Chair of the Pembroke College JCR Art Committee

The exhibition will be open to the public throughout Trinity term, on Wednesdays and Fridays, from 12-2pm. For more information visit www.pembrokejcrart.org