The Tate’s Sylvia Pankhurst exhibition

WPSU badge - logo designed by Syvia Pankhurst

Lessons from a ground-breaking political artist

By Christina Prentice

Tate Britain’s current spotlight on Sylvia Pankhurst’s art work gives an extraordinary new insight into the most important feminist leader of the 20th century.

It challenges the view that she gave up art for politics and brings alive the importance of her distinctive brand of feminism – not the narrow struggle for parliamentary democracy for elite women, but a hegemonic view of the struggle needed to take the whole of society forward, in Britain and internationally.

The exhibition brings together for the first time her work which was pioneering in the use of colour and symbolism to create a striking and coherent visual identity for the Women’s Social and Political Union and feminist movement more widely. Her purple, white and green designs became iconic and were ground-breaking in a way that is hard to imagine in today’s world saturated with logos, branding and advertising.

Sylvia was arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions and frequently subjected to force feeding. Her detailed illustrations of prison life for the women incarcerated, tortured on hunger strike did as much to give prominence to the injustice as her writing.

In a gallery dominated by images of powerful men and conventional portrayals of idealised femininity, her drawings of women workers across Britain pose a stark contrast. They capture beautifully not only the appalling sweat-shop conditions, but expose the subordinate roles women consistently held.

The exhibition takes us on a journey of her political development. It maps out how, after leaving the Women’s Social & Political Union in 1913, Sylvia worked in the East End of London to drive political change for the poorest. She became involved in the international women’s peace movement opposing the World War in contrast to her mother and older sister Christabel who became champions for the inter-imperialist blood bath.

In 1918 Sylvia was invited to Moscow by Lenin to address the second Congress of the Communist International. She was a committed anti-fascist, opposing Mussolini in Italy, supporting the Republicans in Spain, and helping Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. When Italian fascism loomed over the lives of Ethiopians, Sylvia campaigned for Winston Churchill to oppose it, to no avail. It is a mark of her internationalist approach that she spent the last years of her life there and was honoured with a state funeral attended by thousands when she died.

The Sylvia Pankhust exhibition at Tate Britain continues until March 23 and is not to be missed.

Information about the Tate’s exhibition can be found here.

Further information about Sylvia Pankhust’s campaigning art can be found here.