A new exhibition of breathtaking paintings inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own has opened at Toronto’s Clint Roenisch Gallery. Curated by Brit Pruiksma, Anonymous Was A Woman features the work of 12 women artists. 

The exhibit’s name comes from a quote in Woolf’s essay: “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”

The artwork is based on reflections in Woolf’s essay about how women throughout history, particularly artists, face additional obstacles and often aren’t given proper recognition for their work. Despite this, they continue to seek success and carve out spaces for themselves to thrive.

The featured paintings explore several themes in Woolf’s essay, including the concept of needing a “room of one’s own” to be able to create art uninhibited. The idea of a “room” can mean not only a physical space, but also psychological, economic, and social freedom. 

Chechu Álava, Woolf’s Table, 2021; oil on linen; unique; 46 x 55 cms; unframed; signed, titled and dated in ink on the reverse.

As they created their works, the artists reflected on their own sanctuaries and artistic rituals. Heidrun Rathgeb’s pieces convey the sense of stillness she feels in the room where she paints. 

“My room is my sanctuary; a paper-, pencil-, and book-covered floor, a paint-splattered mess, a space where no one looks and thinks and feels except myself. A space where in the moments in between I drink Japanese tea from a tiny iron cup, where I paint into the small hours without any notion of time nor the other world outside my door.”

In her essay, Woolf writes: “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”

Anonymous Was A Woman sounds like a serene place to reflect on how far we’ve come in terms of support and recognition for women in the arts, but also to think about the next steps we need to take.

The exhibit is available to view at the Clint Roenisch Gallery until February 26.