Biography

Mary Pridmore was born Mary Elizabeth McGrath in Burnie, Tasmania. In the 70s she completed a Bachelor of Arts with Honours, and in 2002 she graduated from the School of Art (UTAS) with first class honours in Painting. In 2008 she completed a Doctor of Philosophy in Painting (UTAS) - her project: Re-inventing Rapport, an Investigation of the Mother-Daughter Dyad in Contemporary Figure Painting.

She has had 8 solo exhibitions, most recently (2017), Home-Scapes II at the Salamanca Art Centre. Her work has been presented in several group exhibitions including the Z Factor at the Plimsoll Gallery (2014). In 2003 and 2015 she was a finalist in the Portia Geach Memorial Exhibition at the SH Ervin Gallery – a prestigious national exhibition which focuses on the work of female portrait painters.

Pridmore has curated three exhibitions: (2008) From Home, Burnie Regional Gallery, (2008) Dream Home, Plimsoll Gallery, and (2004) Propinquity and Distance, Carnegie Gallery. Her enduring interests include feminism and portraiture in contemporary culture.

Sally Glaetzer biography

Sally Glaetzer is an award-winning journalist and feature writer in Hobart. In 2016 she was Arts Reporter of the Year (Tasmanian Media Awards) and in 2017 she was the Feature Writer of the Year ( Tasmanian Media Awards). She formerly worked at the Mercury newspaper and at the ABC in Hobart and Adelaide.


Exhibition Essay

Mary Pridmore's self-portraits, spanning nearly three decades, are a record of her attempts - both playful and serious - to explore her identity in relation to three strong, extraordinary women in her immediate family. At the same time they make reference to several centuries of portraits of women, and to female self-portraits as a genre.

Pridmore's grandmother, Enid Lyons, was the wife of the only Tasmanian to become Prime Minister of Australia. She was a well-known public figure during her husband's lifetime and, after his death, became an eminent politician in her own right. Pridmore’s mother, Rosemary, the ninth of Dame Enid's twelve children, known for her brilliance, warmth and elegance, was tragically beset by mental illness in her late twenties. She left the family home for institutional care when Pridmore was eleven, maintaining erratic, although loving, contact. Pridmore’s godmother, Mary O'Byrne, provided essential kindness, comfort and encouragement, forming the third part of this complex and profoundly influencing maternal triangle.

Like a child trying on her mother's clothes, or an actress dressing for a role, Pridmore assumes the costumes and accessories (in some cases the actual belongings) of these role models. Yet she remains always herself, as the straightforward gaze indicates, “trying on” these personas so close to her: the famous public grandmother; the absent, glamorous, non-mothering mother; the fairy godmother.

While Pridmore is best known more recently for her compact domestic scenes and still life studies in gouache (her 2017 exhibition Home-Scapes II was a loving homage to Mary O’Byrne), these self-portraits in oil are, by contrast, large and declaratory.  Themes include the era of 1970s second wave feminism during which, Pridmore says, “the world of glamour was absolutely pushed away”, juxtaposed with her later obsession with the belongings, or artefacts, of her lost mothers. She recalls weeping at an Audrey Hepburn exhibition in Sydney in 2000 as she recognised her late mother in the simple elegance of Hepburn’s fashion. A portrait of Pridmore reclining in a grey ball dress, in the style of Francois Boucher's portrait of Madame de Pompadour, is at once a nod to a great courtesan (and intellectual woman) of the past, and an ode to the daughter who missed knowing her beautiful, sophisticated, yet unconventional mother in her prime. Another portrait shows Pridmore wrapping herself protectively in her mother's black evening stole, representing her feelings of aloneness in the universe after the death of her mother in 1999 and her father in 2000. This latter was one of two of Pridmore’s works to be selected for hanging in the prestigious Portia Geach Award. The power of the gaze was a topic Pridmore reflected on in her 2008 PhD thesis, comparing the level stare of Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun's Self Portrait after 1872 with the timidly alluring pose of Rubens's Le Chapeau de Paille.

The large scale of these portraits adds to their sense of mischievous challenge. They are larger than life size, emphasising the artist's declaration; 'this is me'. The backgrounds are blank and monochrome, effectively acting as a stage for what Pridmore calls the “theatre of identity”. Her skill and precision is perhaps most evident in her handling of the richly patterned fabrics that feature strongly throughout the exhibition. The brushwork is luscious, loving, sensual. At times the clothing becomes the painting’s central focus, heavily weighted with significance and story telling.

A key inspiration for this exhibition was British historian Frances Borzello's visit to Hobart in 2000. "Self-portraits are . . . part of the language painters use to make a point, from the simple 'this is what I look like' to the more complicated 'this is what I believe in'," Borzello writes in her book Seeing Ourselves: Women's Self Portraits. Borzello asserts that female self-portraiture should be seen as a stand-alone genre, arguing that, since the Renaissance, female artists have used such paintings to subvert dominant cultural norms – often using fashion to create a powerful persona. 

For Pridmore, like many female artists, her interest in self-portraiture was initially borne from a desire to practice her craft free from the weight of expectation that comes from painting a model. As Borzello notes, women were not permitted to attend life drawing classes until the late 19 th  century, so self- portraiture was often a practical solution. However, the freedom afforded by self-portraiture is offset by the discomfort of self-analysis (Van Gogh was one of those who described the difficulty of painting oneself). Pridmore’s stance, or posture, in each portrait shows a woman whose life and attitudes are evolving, from the near-naked vulnerability of the fur stole painting, with one shoe raised as if ready to deflect an approach, to that of Pridmore as the artist, hand on hip in a confident, seductive, almost confronting pose.

In conclusion, these portraits assert the importance of painting in the age of mass media. As Robert Hughes says in his catalogue essay to Lucien Freud’s American retrospective (Lucien Freud paintings, Thames and Hudson 1987): “No work of art can ever be experienced at first hand by as many people as a network news broadcast. That does not matter. What does count is the energy and persistence with which painting can embrace not ‘empty value’ but lived experience; give that experience stable form, measure and structure; and so release it, transformed, into one mind at a time, viewer by viewer.”

Sally Glaetzer, Feature Writer of the Year (2017 Tasmanian Media Awards)

A Self-Portraits Project

Mary Pridmore, Self-Portrait with Accessories 2015
Oil on canvas
200 x 150 cm
Exhibited SH Ervin Gallery
$15,000
Mary Pridmore, Self-Portrait as a Courtesan 2002 - 2019
Oil on canvas
180 x 130cm
$15,000
Mary Pridmore, Self-Portrait as (M)other 2002 - 2019
Oil on canvas
180 x 130cm
$15,000
Mary Pridmore, Night Portrait 2018
185 x 135cm
Oil on Canvas
$15,000
Mary Pridmore, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman 2019
Oil on canvas
185 x 135cm
$15,000
Mary Pridmore, Self-Portrait as an Artist 2002
185 x 135cm
Exhibited SH Ervin Gallery 2003
$15,000