Perspectives: Mead’s Self Portrait

Text by Ruth Busby

Dorothy Mead was aware of her subjugated position in the art world; she said to her sister that if she ‘changed her name to George’ she would sell more work.[1]  At a time when male artists still had a ‘stranglehold’ over the art establishment, Mead could be perceived as making strides as a feminist artist,[2] through her position as a founding member of the Borough Group as well through her stylistic approach. Her subjects are often featureless, the faces a blur of expressive brush strokes through which she is potentially expressing identity as something multiple and unstable. Self Portrait, 1959, is a striking example of Mead’s ability to confront the viewer with this disquieting sense of self.

Central to this portrait are the broad brush stokes which smear her features down the canvas to create a sense of indistinct identity. The elongated features are dragged down, almost crossed out, suggesting a hardness, aggression and strength in her act of painting. These are qualities typically considered ‘masculine’. Like the portraiture of her male contemporaries in the Borough Group and the likes of Evert Lundquist and Francis Bacon; with no mouth to breathe or speak, no eyes to see or nose to smell, it asks us to question, what are we but meat? Mead takes this existentialist approach to identity to the viewer not only through the blurring of features, but also perceivably through a blurring of gender.

Mead studied at The Slade School of Art from 1956 to 1959.[3]  Self Portrait was likely to have been painted during Mead’s final year as a student, the same year Mead was said to have been forced to leave for refusing to sit exams on perspective, aspects which she felt were redundant to her work as a painter.[4]  Mead may have been highly conscious of her sex and the limitations impressed upon her at that time. We may question if this experience contributed to a heightened sense of awareness of her gender. Was Mead, in this portrayal of self, suggesting a movement between herself and an alter ego, in which her frustrations and strength are given allowance to come to the fore? Is this portrait also a comment on her anger with the art education system?

Mead rejects the traditional modes of representation and histories of portraiture in the Western Tradition by undertaking a progressive approach, which does not convey photographic likeness or narcissistic flattery, but rather invites the viewer to question how we construct identities. Indeed, the notion of ‘construction’ is also quite pivotal to the stylistic qualities of the work, with its firm lines and use of light and shade building an image of an artist whose work and determination should be recognised and disseminated as an example and inspiration to artists today.

[1] See ‘Memories of My Sister, Dorothy Mead’ by Val Long in the Digital Archive [2] Further discussion of women’s subjugated position in the art world can be found in ‘Dorothy Mead and the Problem of Recognition for a Woman Artist’, Katy Deepwell talk at Borough Road Gallery, June 2013 [3] Dorothy Mead 1928-1975, Waterhouse & Dodd Exhibition Catalogue [4] Mead’s ‘Letter against Perspective’ can be found in the Digital Archive.

About the Author

Ruth Busby has an MSt from The University of Oxford. Since graduating she has worked with and for various arts organisations. Her interests include feminist art history, the philosophy of art and the application of psychology to art theory.

Ruth Busby researched this work by Dorothy Mead from A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection whilst a Gallery Volunteer at Borough Road Gallery November 2014 – July 2015.