Ruth Bishops is an assistant art keeper toiling in the Fisher Gallery in early 1950s London, shy of relationships after losing her fiancé in the war. She reluctantly goes to view some paintings by Irina Durova, an aging Russian artist, and avoids her for some time after. But when she sees Irina’s art series Women in the Field, One and Two, she becomes entangled in Irina’s life.
Women in the field, one and two deals with art, artists, male privilege and post-war trauma, and how paintings end up on walls in exhibitions. Ruth is a passionate and brilliant woman who is overshadowed and undervalued by her male colleagues. She spends time with her sister and her two children, her brother-in-law still coming to terms with post-war life. She is the typical introvert with a solid core. Irina is a brash and over-confident artist, an extrovert who is fragile on the inside. It is hard for the reader to know what, if anything, of Irina’s boasting is true: was she a famous avant-garde artist in pre-revolutionary Russia? Did she even paint her early works? For a while, it is hard to tell if she has any talent at all. But when Ruth sees the Women in the Field paintings, we, along with Ruth, start to see the possibility of unacknowledged talent.
The politics of the British art world are stifling, and it is with some relief we find Ruth and Irina are going to travel to distant New Zealand: “it’s nowhere really; it’s the ends of the earth; it’s an outpost”. Ruth has been given the job of suggesting and purchasing artworks for the new National Gallery in New Zealand (another source of resentment at the Fisher), and when her suggestion that they purchase the Women in the Field series is accepted, she suddenly finds herself booked to travel to the other side of the world along with Irina, in a way becoming ‘women in the field, one and two’.
Wellington is cold, windy and rainy, and bristling with colonial attitudes. An excellent environment to look at the conflict between the artist’s freedom to create and the appropriation of cultural artefacts, the tension between wanting to start anew but also hang on to what is old and familiar, the sexism and colonialism of the art world, the tension between exhibitions and collections, and the relationship between art, patronage and ‘the common man’. And on the personal front, Ruth and Irina’s relationship is tested when Irina’s true intent and personal history emerge, allowing for ideas around art and life choices to come to the fore.
If it sounds as though Women in the field, one and two is weighty and complicated, it isn’t. The ideas are all there behind the text, but the story is a very human one, for example, fleeting references to a man dropping to the floor and covering his head when hearing bangs, the subtlety of Ruth’s brother-in-law’s problems, the difficulty some characters have with talking about their war-time experiences, are all it takes to evoke post-war trauma.
Ruth is struggling personally and professionally with the world she finds herself in, surrounded by relationships and possibilities she is not confident enough to pursue. But her trip to New Zealand allows her the perspective to self-evaluate, and the novel ends with a brilliant metaphor that indicates Ruth has finally found the freedom to revel in the choices before her.
I really enjoyed this novel, the characters were great, the depiction of Wellington, with its influx of people from Europe and the marginalisation of the indigenous point of view was interesting, and I learnt a lot about how to view modern art! Highly recommended.