Janet Sobel: 20th Century Woman

“It is not easy to paint. It is very strenuous. But it’s something you’ve got to do if you have the urge”. – Janet Sobel.

This exhibition at The Gallery of Everything on Chiltern Street features over 30 astonishing works on paper by the acclaimed/reclaimed figuratist, impressionist, surrealist and abstract expressionist artist Janet Sobel (1893 – 1968). Like Anna Zemánková who I have written about here, Janet Sobel only started to paint in her later life when her son brought home brushes and paper from art school. It was as if something that had been incubating inside her was at last unleashed, and she produced over a thousand highly acclaimed works between 1939 and 1946, when she disappeared from the art scene.

Her granddaughter, Ashley Shapiro remembers something of Sobel’s process:

In 1942, I’m a tot sitting on the floor next to Gram. She’s working on a long canvas. She poured paint on the canvas and took out a vacuum cleaner …she used the black hose to blow the paint around the canvas. No one had ever done this before. Her face is shining and her blue eyes intent. She’s smiling and I remember it perfectly. I can still breathe the air coming in from the open window.

Sobel invented her own painting process. According to her son, “she would prepare a ground, which would invariably suggest or trigger some ‘idea’ for her, whose sudden conception was matched by an equally rapid execution. In her efforts to pin down her conception she would pour the paint, tip the canvas, and blow the wet lacquer.”

Milky Way 1945 Enamel on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Jennifer Higgie, in her essay ‘I Paint What I Feel -The Work of Janet Sobey’, writes about the painting Milky Way:

At once abstract and figurative, gestural, and detailed, at the time it was made, it was, in its delicate way, revolutionary. It was painted in 1945 – two years before Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings – by an untrained artist in her 50s: Janet Sobel. Her life and work are yet another example of a gifted woman being excluded from the narrow lens of the art historical canon.

Read the full essay here.

Learn more about Janet and her work in the digital catalogue and essays here.

When I visited the Gallery of Everything last week, I was gratified to be able to view the work of a number of other artists in the upper floor of the gallery. It was wonderful to view stitching detail in work by Anna Zemánková who’s works I have written about previously, but not seen in person. Other artists featured that I had not encountered before were: Mary Barnes, a British self-taught painter who suffered from schizophrenia and is particularly known for her documentation of her experiences at R.D. Laing’s experimental therapeutic community Kingsley Hall in London. Her works, vivid oils often depicting religious themes, were first shown at Camden Arts Centre in 1969 and are held in several major UK collections.

Minnie Evan‘s (1892-1987) whose exquisite work was informed by her love of flora and fauna and profound Christian belief system. From Trinidadian and slave descent, Evans was gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens in North Carolina which influenced the paradisal landscapes she commenced in middle age. She explained the work as the visions she had experienced since childhood. They are considered among the 20th century’s most important black visionary artworks.

Marian Spore Bush left a career in dentistry to become America’s most respected visionary painter. She exhibited her prophetic canvases at New York’s most celebrated galleries.

Other artists featured:

Guo Fengyi (1942-2010)

Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn (1881- 1962)

Madge Gill (1882-1961)

Jan Haworth (b.1942)

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980)

Alice Neel (1900-1984)

Niki De Saint Phalle (1930-2002)

Judith Scott (1943-2005)

Eva Švankmajerova (1940-2005)

Unica ZÜrn (1916-1970)

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