Artist Jesse Jones’s intervention in the Hugh Lane Gallery as part of the Artist as Witness programme earlier this year, threw up a hitherto unrecognised masterpiece. The Woman with the Puppets (1915) is a remarkable painting, not least because of its magnificent display of female self-absorption and contentedness.
The subject’s sheer delight in her own solitary nakedness, the freedom of the brushstrokes that make up her casually unfinished right foot, the energy inherent in her limbs despite the relaxed nature of her pose: all of this combines to produce an image it’s difficult to stop looking at. It looks like an Orpen, but it’s better than an Orpen.
The painter, Isobel Lilian Gloag, was born in London to Scottish parents in 1865. She studied art in London and Paris and is generally regarded as a romantic symbolist, but this hundred-year-old opus is as real and gutsy as it gets. Restored for its inclusion in No More Fun and Games, it hadn’t been on public display since the 1930s. Now it looks as fresh and modern as if it was painted yesterday.
Twenty-first century, naked selfie-taking, female-empowerment-mongers eat your heart out, here is an image of a happy, nude woman, playing with puppets like a god. Her joy is what drives its mood; there is no nastiness to it. She is toying with floppy, male dolls, including a judge and a white-suited dandy. Their heads and feet are cut off by the frame, while her body fills the canvas unapologetically. It’s an incontrovertible statement of ownership of space and of self. There is freedom, no shame, but personal revelry and self-satisfaction in her every cell.
Unlike Micheal Farrell’s Madonna Irlanda (on display downstairs), or any number of images of naked women to be found in galleries and museums the world over, Gloag’s depiction is of a woman as a self-sufficient individual, woman as person not object, woman as an active player not a symbol. Gloag’s subject is a woman for whom whether or not you are watching is irrelevant. She doesn’t need an audience, or a painting, to affirm her existence.
The Woman with the Puppets was a late, great masterpiece: Gloag died two years after producing it, aged 52, on the 5th of January 1917.