Anne-Louise Willoughby’s biography Nora Heysen: A Portrait celebrates the life of a woman propelled by her drive to paint. Nora Heysen was in 1938 the first woman to win the Archibald, Australia’s national portrait prize, and continued to push boundaries to be appointed this country’s first female Official War Artist.
This extract from the book uncovers exactly what Nora was up against.
An article published in The Australian Women’s Weekly highlights what women artists of the time faced as they worked to be taken seriously. The headline read: ‘Girl Painter Who Won Art Prize is also Good Cook’. An accompanying photograph of Nora peeling vegetables at her sink is captioned: ‘MISS NORA HEYSEN, a talented cook, who collects recipes from many countries, at work in her kitchen’. Perhaps underestimating the broader interests of their readership, the editorial staff gave the historic win a culinary twist. Nora, with her usual grace, responded to their request for her favourite recipes and she submitted three, which comprised the bulk of the story surrounding her extraordinary achievement. Whether the significance of her response was lost on the journalist or not, it appeared in print under the sub-headline ‘Nora Heysen Gives Recipes for Her Favorite Foreign Dishes — There is scope for artistry in the kitchen just as there is in the studio’. The foundation subject of the article is inserted as a sideline, as Nora’s statement is reported: ‘ “Most artists can cook even if all cooks do not paint,” says Miss Nora Heysen, who, with her portrait of Mrs. Elink Schuurman, is the first woman to win the Archibald Prize’. Despite the Weekly’s attempts to guide the tone of the piece, Nora deftly steered the report back to art:
‘ “Artists learn to be good or fairly good cooks out of sheer necessity during their student days, when they are nearly always poor,” she explained … “There are probably people much cleverer than I am who can do two jobs at once, but I can’t.
“If I have some exotic creation cooking on the kitchen stove I can’t possibly paint, and if I am painting I cannot turn my mind to how the dinner is cooking.” ’
The article also carried a photograph of Nora at work in her studio alongside her recipe for Hungarian goulash and instructions for ‘Duck with Olive Sauce’.
Fellow entrant Max Meldrum did not hold to the idea that women artists could aspire to paint as men could. The city newspapers carried reports of his comments immediately after the announcement of Nora’s win:
‘A great artist has to tread a lonely road. He needs all the manly qualities, courage, strength, and endurance. He becomes great only by exerting himself to the limit of his strength the whole time. I believe that such a life is unnatural and impossible for a woman.
‘If I were a woman I would certainly prefer raising a healthy family to a career in art. Men and women are differently constituted. Women are more closely attached to the physical things of life. They are not to blame. They cannot help it, and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy.’
Despite this, Nora seems to have retained a degree of equanimity. In a letter to her parents immediately after receiving the news of her Archibald win she reflects on the commotion attached to the moment:
‘After two days of rather bewildering notoriety and excitement, today the reaction has settled in and I’m glad to spend a quiet day in my studio. I have been beset with reporters and photographers, and their battery of cross-questioning. Now I have a vague idea of the life of a movie star. Thank goodness that it lasts for a brief day … and I can settle back and paint in comfortable obscurity …
‘You’ll laugh at the attack of Meldrum’s. The reporters all want to urge me into battle defending women’s rights, but I have no wish to be drawn into it especially as it becomes personal.’
It is clear that Nora did not believe in capitalising on the adage that any publicity is good publicity and was keen for the attention to end. In conversation with Eugene Schlusser, Nora recalls artist Max Meldrum’s reaction to her win: ‘Was he angry! Max Meldrum said a woman’s place was in the kitchen! … I thought my goodness gracious – fancy taking that view! Art’s art to me, no matter who does it – men, women or what!’