Women of a Nervous Disposition coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week, which falls on Monday 8 - Sunday 14 May. The exhibition looks to address historical and fictional women who’ve been silenced by patriarchy and normative culture for being different, and who’ve been driven to emotional and mental collapse. In Women of a Nervous Disposition, Denise Weston successfully offers a space to re-examine the villainized and forgotten women of the past, and shows that their ‘madness’ was a result of the oppressive societies they lived in.
The larger paintings depict three women: the sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943); the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935); and the character of ‘Sister Ruth’ from the novel and film, Black Narcissus (Rumer Godden, 1939, novel; Powell & Pressburger, 1947, film).
The connection between these women is that their societies restricted their autonomy and creativity. Instead of adhering to the gendered roles expected of them, they have all rejected them. For instance, Claudel and Gilman were highly active in their professions as sculptor and writer, when women of their time were expected to be passive and remain in the domestic realm. The negative reactions from their societies fuelled their depression, anxiety, and their rebellion. As a result, they were labelled as ‘mentally ill’ or ‘mad’.
In Weston’s paintings, the mental health of the women is portrayed by their ghoulish appearances. Their pale skin-tones have underlying yellow tints that show the manifestation of their nervous dispositions. In contrast, the dark backgrounds act as a window into their bleak states of mind. Their ghostly representations show that they are the ostracised ‘other’; a negative, disruptive and irrational creature that does not belong in the society of the time. However, Weston urges us to see through this and re-examine that perspective.
I could spend hours staring at Weston’s paintings. Yet, I was also intrigued by her use of pebbles which were placed deliberately in lines around the room. The neat order along windowsills and at the bottom of the paintings reminded me of Gilman’s famous short-story, The Yellow Wallpaper. The main character is locked in a former nursery and she slowly picks up quirks and tendencies, such as tracing the wallpaper in the room. Her confinement ultimately leads to her mental breakdown. So, it’s not exactly pleasant…
The motif of the pebbles was also enhanced by the Victorian-esque desk tucked away in the corner of the room. On it were the usual items from the past: an old-fashioned lamp, a candle, a quill and handwritten letters. A coat and a pair of shoes were hung up neatly beside the desk, which encouraged the sense that this scene belonged in a bedroom or study. However, the piles of pebbles which were scattered across the table and floor seemed to signify that all was not well. And with a mere glance at the letters, I could tell that the contents of them were not happy. The scene before me was a snapshot of a pariah’s life.
The exhibition also displayed a number of smaller pieces and book works that was also incredibly interesting. Women of Nervous Dispositions is the start of Weston’s two-year project, so fingers crossed that we will see more of her work around Nottingham soon.
Women of a Nervous Disposition will be exhibited at the Lace Market Gallery until Thursday 18 May 2017.
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