Erica McGilchrist by Linda Short

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

The mass of unclothed bodies depicted in The abandoned (Kew Mental Hospital) 1954 is a confronting scene and yet it is full of humanity. This painting belongs to a group of works that Erica McGilchrist based on her experiences at the former Kew Mental Hospital in Melbourne. Between 1953 and 1954, as a young artist and teacher, she led classes there for patients as part of a landmark initiative to use art in mainstream psychiatric therapy.(1)

While the value of the classes remained inconclusive for McGilchrist personally, she had no doubt that her involvement profoundly affected her direction as an artist. The inhumane conditions at the hospital offered a tangible subject through which she could voice her views on social justice. The individual suffering of the patients resonated with global discourses on human rights that McGilchrist sought out in the aftermath of the Second World War. Displacement, dispossession and the Holocaust atrocities were issues that were live around her:

My husband and my closest friends at this time were mainly Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the stories they told me of the tragedies that had affected their lives were to leave a lasting impression on my mind and heart. Kew Hospital was a prison where patients who had been classified as ‘incurable’ were concentrated, waiting for death to release them.(2)

McGilchrist included the painting and related works in her first solo exhibition, held at Mirka Mora’s now legendary city studio.(3) Not everyone responded favourably, including members of the progressive set she mixed with at Melbourne’s Contemporary Art Society, such as Tim Burstall, who tells of various disparaging reactions that suggest an unease with McGilchrist’s choice of subject matter.(4) Yet a review by The Herald critic, Alan McCulloch, commends the artist’s exploration of trauma through a new expressive style that befitted these concerns.(5)

An aspect of the series that is notably absent from commentary of the time is that it focuses solely on women. Such honest portrayals of female subjects by a woman artist would have been unusual in this male‑dominated era of Australian art. The paintings offer sharp comment on women’s experience of the 1950s, when deep stigmas surrounding mental health were fuelled by patriarchy. Those who did not conform to societal expectations or follow the advice of men were frequently labelled as ‘mad’. It is no coincidence that during the creation of these works, McGilchrist was questioning her own psychological state as she tried to uphold an unfulfilling marriage.(6)

From this point onwards, McGilchrist’s humanist concerns informed her creative output, even when her stylistic approach shifted to abstraction. Her co‑founding of the Women’s Art Register in Melbourne instigated a passionate involvement in the women’s rights movement and feminist projects until she ceased painting in 1995. Shortly before she retired, McGilchrist was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her contributions to the visual arts and for advancing the status of women artists.

(1) The initiative was led by Dr Eric Cunningham Dax, then Chairman of the Mental Hygiene Authority.

(2) Erica McGilchrist slide kits, Women’s Art Register, Richmond Library, Melbourne, kit 1, p 2.

(3) Mirka’s Studio, Melbourne, September 1954. Dr Cunningham Dax was the opening speaker.

(4) Hilary McPhee (ed), Memoirs of a young bastard: The diaries of Tim Burstall, November 1953 to November 1954, pp 232–3, 235, 236–7, 243–4.

(5) Alan McCulloch, ‘Psychologists and gourmets’, The Herald, 7 September 1954, p 22.

(6) McGilchrist openly discusses the circumstances of her marriage in material within her papers, which are held in the archive of the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne. Although she separated from her husband, they maintained a close friendship.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Short, Linda. "Erica McGilchrist" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 232–233.

LINDA SHORT is Curator, State Library Victoria, Melbourne.

Erica McGilchrist appears in