Women on Walls review: putting everyone in the picture, for a change

Cameras follow the brushstrokes as the Royal Irish Academy creates its first-ever portraits of female members

From the Women on Walls documentary: artist Blaise Smith creating the group picture of Royal Irish Academy women. Photograph: RTÉ

From the Women on Walls documentary: artist Blaise Smith creating the group picture of Royal Irish Academy women. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Picture this: the hall of the Royal Irish Academy, the 230-year-old society, and the eyes that follow you around its premises. It would be easy to feel inadequate among storied alumni such as WB Yeats and Erwin Schrödinger, but not everyone rubs it in.

“You won’t find a woman looking down on you here,” offers the RIA’s head of communications. That would sound almost reassuring, but for the fact that, until recently, there were no women among its portraiture at all.

Last year, at the behest of Accenture, the RIA decided to include, for the first time in its history, paintings of women members. There is a sense throughout Women on Walls (RTÉ One, Thursday, 10.15pm), which documents that process, of making up for lost time. In five commissioned works, 12 women were rushed and brushed into immortality; four new pictures depict its first female scholars, admitted in 1949, and one group portrait features eight contemporary members, all working in science.

Superheroes

One of the jobs of portrait artists, throughout history, is to flatter the patron while still creating a revealing representation. That, you suspect, is also the documentary director Ciarán Deevey’s approach.

Several talking, tilting heads from the RIA and Accenture agree, at length, on closing the gender gap, the politics of public displays and valuing people equally. Like one of the artists, Vera Klute, who wears her politics more lightly, we know this: “It shouldn’t even be special,” she considers, “it’s kind of sad.”

The documentary, though, is more heartening when it gets closer to its subject, and Klute’s work is most challenging; botanist Phyllis Clinch, art historian Francois Henry, physicist Sheila Tinney and early Irish scholar Eleanor Knott are all deceased. As she studies them through photographs, writing and interviews, Klute slowly, stirringly realises who they were.

In contrast, the group picture, by Blaise Smith, is necessarily crammed, presenting its eight women like superheroes on a movie poster, each bearing an icon of their special power. Immunologist Lydia Lynch balances an anti-tumour immune cell on her forearm, cardiovascular specialist Caitríona Lally lets a heart hover between her hands, hyperspectral imaging expert Aoife Gowen holds a small rainbow.

These finished portraits command attention and encourage questions, which feels like the project’s bigger achievement (who could say that about the other panjandrums, frowning down from heavy frames?).

But to get a better sense of the women represented, you need to see Klute and Smith at work, studying the eyes of their subjects, eliciting conversations, yielding details as political as gender bias in academia, or as personal as a baby in the background.

The portraits provide great likenesses, but the documentary knows that these women have much more to say.

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