The subversive hearth: the installation of the domiciled artist

Baguley, Margaret ORCID: (2003) The subversive hearth: the installation of the domiciled artist. Hecate: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Women's Liberation, 29 (2). pp. 166-181. ISSN 0311-4198


As a marginalised group in Australian art history and society, women artists possess a valuable and vital craft tradition, which inevitably influences all aspects of their arts practice. Installation art, which has its origins in the craft tradition, has only recently been acknowledged in the art mainstream; yet evolved in the home of the 1950s. The social policies of this decade are well documented for their insistence upon women remaining in the home in order to achieve personal success in their lives. This cultural oppressiveness paradoxically resulted in a revolution in women's art in the environment to which they were confined. Women's creative energies were diverted and sublimated into the home, resulting in aesthetic statements of individuality in home decoration. A re-examination of this vital period in women's art and craft history reveals the social and cultural policies which insidiously undermined women's attempts publicly to express their creativity.

The patriarchal society in which women have existed has sought to place them in a subservient domestic role, which has been socially constructed with an inherent bias towards men. The cultural stereotyping of women and men framed the dichotomy of private and public which has become ingrained in society. Women were expected to fulfil their lives within the home and men outside the home, thus negating any competition or conflict in a career situation. The domains of each gender were clearly marked, and society ensured that these lines were rarely transgressed.

The house, with its symbolic connotations for women, encompassed therefore social roles and expectations of both women and men. During the 1950s and early 1960s, women of all classes were expected to stay at home and raise their family. Many families owned their own homes in this decade, as can be seen from statistics which indicate the dramatic rise of home ownership. The Modernist emphasis on space efficiency and simplicity of construction was eminently suitable to the home-builder, as smaller, simpler houses were more appropriate to their skills and budget. The austerity and simplicity of 1950s houses necessitated careful consideration of the placement of objects and furniture within the space. The home therefore became a stimulus to women whose creativity had been hindered by social policies.

During their married lives, including the time before, during and after childbirth, many women created an environment within the home that was both functional and aesthetic. In fact, many women had actually assisted in the construction of their house as partners in home-building, and therefore possessed an intimate knowledge of the construction of their space; usually refreshed during the completion of daily household tasks. As the 'woman of the house' the responsibility was upon them to organise the space through placement and arrangement of objects within in. This inherent responsibility came with numerous choices in order to create the ambience of the home they envisaged. The home as an aesthetic space in the 1950s can be re-examined through the definition of installation art in contemporary art this decade. The term installation has only been used in the last decade by mainstream art historians to describe a type of art making which rejects concentration on one object in favour of a consideration of the relationships between a number of elements, or of the interaction between things and their contexts.

The home was curated by a woman, whose sole purpose was to achieve an aesthetic relationship between the objects and environment to which they were integral. This relationship between the artist and the home can be classified as the advent of installation in women's art history. Installation is concerned with the fusion of art and life, a feature certainly evident in considering both functional and aesthetic values in the home through choices made by the artist/curator. The home was interactive because of its functionality, and viewers in the roles of visitors and family were encouraged to engage in and have dialogue with the installation which had been created.

The loneliness many women felt in being relegated to the home throughout history, was relieved in some ways by the pride they felt in creating a home and atmosphere which was their own. As Kerr notes (in Heritage: The National Women's Art Book), female artists working at home with young children in the 1950s speak also of the physical isolation they experienced, largely as a result of a spreading population and poor public transport. 'Not surprisingly, they frequently turned to their domestic circumstances – as indeed women had in the past for their inspiration and subject matter' (85). In this era the decorative arts of the home were not considered to be an art/craft form, and therefore many women justifiably believed they had to distance themselves from the domestic in order to be taken seriously as artists.

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Education (Up to 30 Jun 2013)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Education (Up to 30 Jun 2013)
Date Deposited: 07 Mar 2010 12:49
Last Modified: 18 Oct 2016 04:05
Uncontrolled Keywords: women artists, Australian art, public-private art, galleries, modernism, installation
Fields of Research (2008): 19 Studies in Creative Arts and Writing > 1905 Visual Arts and Crafts > 190599 Visual Arts and Crafts not elsewhere classified
Fields of Research (2020): 36 CREATIVE ARTS AND WRITING > 3606 Visual arts > 360699 Visual arts not elsewhere classified
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): C Society > 95 Cultural Understanding > 9501 Arts and Leisure > 950104 The Creative Arts (incl. Graphics and Craft)

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