In 1943 a housewife living near the Mount Stromlo observatory in Canberra began exploring the local landscape. It was very different to the lush green of her native New Zealand, - sparse, dry, speaking it’s own language. She began to collect things, rusted tin, weathered plastic dolls, abandoned hive boxes. She would listen to them, arrange them, seeking a feeling, a sense of something. Assemblies would form from her hands, a box of weathered plastic dolls heads, sheets of floating rusted iron, fluid animal vertebrae, old fence posts leaning against a wall. This is Rosalie Gascoigne.
A sample of her works can be found here: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/artist/1413/
I always say when I put up a show, is it self-respecting? And if I find it self-respecting and I respect it,....then I’m satisfied. You can’t take care of what other people think, but I’m very strict on what I think myself - and that stands you in good stead because it comes back to you all the time. In the end, there is an empty space and you are an artist…..and nobody is to tell you that is wrong…
Rosalie’s story is marvelous. She was born in her parents home on January 25th, 1917 in Remuera, Auckland. In 1922 her parents separated and Rosalie lived with her mother, who worked as a teacher. In 1938 she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree from Auckland University College. In 1943 she traveled to Australia to marry astronomer Ben Gascoigne and they lived in a remote scientific community at the Mount Stromlo observatory near Canberra.
She was lonely on the mountain. Isolated. She dutifully did what a 1940’s woman was expected to do. Wake, cook, wash, raise kids, blend in, sleep... repeat. Dreadfully tedious to an inquisitive curious soul. She began to roam the landscape bringing home pieces that attracted her eye.
People would look at my mantle piece and say - what’s that dusty dirty thing doing there?! But I didn’t like things from David Jones...that was me.
...I certainly didn’t want to polish my floor like the other mothers….I was a very bad housewife….I hated it.
She survived the loneliness by making a quilt. In 1955 she entered flower arrangements in the Horticultural Society of Canberra exhibitions and was noticed for her imaginative work. She began to introduce found objects and dried materials into her arrangements. She then engaged herself in Ikebana - the Japanese art of flower arrangements which, unlike the symmetry of Western floral displays, focuses on asymmetry. In the mid 60’s she began to make small metal sculptures from rusted iron and was influenced by British sculptor Henry Moore. Her first formal exhibition was by invitation at Gallery A in Sydney in 1974. She was contacted later that evening saying she had stolen the show and was immediately asked to conduct a solo show. The artworld at the time was very receptive to the emerging artform of assemblage and from this point things went into the stratosphere for Rosalie. Significant galleries began to take an interest in her work, she was offered a Survey Show by the National Gallery of Victoria and then was asked to be the first female artist to represent Australia at the 1982 Venice Biennale. As she quips,
“...this was all very heady stuff,...from the sticks to Venice”.
Rosalie's work has been described as being evocative of the Australian landscape. This is where all her materials have been sourced. When looking at her pieces of assemblage, one can feel a certain resonance with our arid land, of weather worn places, people and experiences. Yet the emotion is uplifting with a sense of serenity. She often referred to Wordsworth's phrase “emotion recollected in tranquility” as a theme that guided her working process.
The things I like are usually weathered , they’ve got life in them, you see, and what you're trying to get is vitality, the source of life is what you're trying to get at. This is what it's about.
Rosalie Gascoigne - first exhibition at age 57. A woman who dignified her artistic sensibilities in the cultural Gulag of an isolated 1940’s scientific community. With resourcefulness, curiosity and imagination, bent down in a country dump to pick up an object and stood up in Venice.
For those who want do look more deeply at her life and work, a free e-book or PDF files can be downloaded here. https://press.anu.edu.au/publications/rosalie-gascoigne
Thanks to Michael Adeney for this article