painter, silk-screen printer, potter and art teacher, was born at Mount Barker (SA) on 24 March 1911. She won a scholarship to the Adelaide School of Arts and studied in 1936-41 under Marie Tuck , Dorrit Black , Leslie Wilkie, Louis McCubbin and Ivor Hele. She joined the United Arts Club where students could sketch from life. From 1935 she exhibited with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts (RSASA) and was elected an associate member while still a student; in 1941 she won the RSASA Portrait Prize. The following year she joined the army, where she lectured in the Education Section until 1945 as well as establishing a Fine Art Print Library and organising an art exhibition of work by army personnel.
After the war Chapman and the Sydney artist James Cant co-founded the Studio of Realist Art (SORA) in Sydney; she became its secretary, gave drawing lessons and established a library at SORA’s premises and organised and participated in SORA exhibitions ( see Marjory Penglase). She and Cant married in 1946. In 1950 they went to London and remained there for five years, also visiting France and Italy. They returned to Sydney, but a year later moved permanently to Adelaide. Chapman lectured at the SA School of Art from 1958 to 1969 and from time to time afterwards although officially retired. She was also an art critic for the Adelaide Advertiser during these years. In 1961 she was awarded the Melrose Prize for portraiture. After her retirement she began to produce serigraphs like The Girl With A Long Nose (1970, NGA) and Katinka (1973, p.c.), and silk-screen printing has remained a major interest. Dora Chapman died in Adelaide on 15 May 1995.
PORTRAIT: Self Portrait n.d. (c.1940), oil on canvas 76.2 × 64.3 cm. Art Gallery of South Australia
Painted in Adelaide, where Chapman had previously had an outstanding student career, this unusual self-portrait presents an oddly ambiguous view of the artist. The setting is Chapman’s own studio yet this figure seems a stranger there, nervously deflecting her gaze as if the viewer-who of course is Chapman herself as well as us-is the real owner of the place. The coat, scarf and broad-brimmed felt hat (which became a trademark) suggest that this person really belongs outdoors, and to some extent she does; at least the largest of the works pinned on the wall would have been painted en plein air . Chapman was then painting landscapes, portraits, still life and interior subjects so the image could be read as representing all facets of her art-except that it carries no conviction that the artist/subject belongs in any specific location.
Inextricably intermingled with the disjunctive subject and setting is the sexual ambiguity of the figure. Short, concealed hair, clothing suitable for either sex, a solid right fist and such strong facial features do not indisputably proclaim that this is a woman in her late twenties; the artist might equally be a younger man. That frank, sexless androgyny complements, indeed justifies, the severely realist idiom of the work. Although there is much artifice in the rendition of the figure and the schematically rendered objects, the power of this portrait comes from the viewer’s conviction that it is an absolutely honest, unflattering, factual statement.
In fact, few metaphysical problems about her art or her sexuality seem to have troubled Chapman in the 1940s. She was far more concerned with changing society through social realist art. In 1945 she married a fellow painter, James Cant, and moved to Sydney, where they co-founded the Studio of Realist Art ( seeMarjory Penglase ). Chapman became the secretary rather than an official exhibiting member, who were all men, and did much of the work to sustain the group’s teaching, exhibiting and social programmes-a typical woman’s role. Inevitably, her own art suffered as a result. Chapman’s great integrity in presenting with such artistic detachment this insecure stranger in her studio makes this a compelling work. The artist-subject rightly looks warily away from the self who is painting her, unsure of her place in the studio or, as yet, in life itself.