Artist and activist Gilly Szego set to open a retrospective exhibition in December / by Calum Roscow

Renowned painter and life-long activist, Gilly Szego is holding a retrospective of her life's work at Protein Studios in December.

The work of Szego, acclaimed for raising the plight of refugees and gender issues, has never been more relevant in the world we are facing today.

Szego has been painting since training at Byam Shaw in the 1940s, with her first work displayed at the Festival of Britain in 1951, and her most recent exhibition, Opposites: Conflict and the Human Mind, exploring cognitive dissonance was shown last year.

Although much of her work has been shown in solo exhibitions, or part of collections, including at the Royal Academy, The Mall Galleries, East London Gallery and the Loggia Gallery, this retrospective exhibition will contain pieces that never been exhibited in public before. It also contains work by other artists including a portrait of Szego by Feliks Topolski.

The retrospective will give a whole new generation of art-lovers the chance to discover and experience her challenging work.

Gilly Szego: A Retrospective runs from 7 to 12 December 2017 at Protein Studios, New Inn Yard, Shoreditch.


Notes to Editors

Despite painting since the 1940s, with some of her 350 pieces of work displayed in public buildings, the 85 year old artist has never courted fame.

Born into a traditional upper class family, with a debutante for a sister, Gilly Szego knew that the best chance of persuading her family to let her attend an art school was several attempts to get expelled from finishing school. After much trying, her reluctant, but supportive, father finally gave in and allowed her to train at Byam Shaw in the late 1940s, and so began a career that has spanned eight decades.

Prospects for a woman artist were even more bleak than they still are today, and she isn't even credited on her first work; the Television Pavilion for the Festival of Britain; it bears the name of her first husband. Of course, since then things have improved, but throughout most of her life her art has defied the expectation of her gender, and now her age. Quaint floral watercolours, these are not.

This December, hosted by Protein Studios, a retrospective of her work showcases exactly how she has defied convention over and over again. In 1982, well ahead of its time, Szego showed an exhibition titled Man Woman, which explored gender fluidity, a subject that has only recently crossed over into mainstream thinking.

Much of her work is dedicated to true exploration of the human condition, whether through pieces shining a light on human rights abuses in a particular part of the world, or simple portraits that convey the complex emotions or character of the sitter.

The existence of one piece in particular Mother and Child, painted during the Ugandan refugee crisis, has become a story in itself. When she painted it in 1972 she couldn't know that 45 years later it would still look as if it was painted last week. 

The concept was simple; a mother and child scene in a refugee camp, but set in such a way that people would mistake it for the Madonna and Child. That way ordinary British people might be able to realise just how desperate the situation in various parts of the world. After all, if Jesus Christ had been born in 1972, it would have most likely been in a refugee camp.

What began as an idea for a Christmas card, soon developed into a full, life-size piece; a canvas surrounded by barbed wire.

 Mother and Child

Mother and Child

It was shown in St-Martins-in-the-field as part of a campaign to get Britain to take in refugees. And by the end of 1972 Britain had taken in 27,000 people in need.

Of course, there have been many global crises since then, but looking at how Britain has handled the huge numbers of Syrians washing up on the world's richest continent, there is a stark contrast. Since 2015 Britain has taken in barely any Syrian refugees, with some claiming the numbers are lower than 200 people. So perhaps it's fitting that this piece will be shown again in an exhibition this December.

Other work set to be shown in this retrospective exhibition includes a commission by Vic Feather, then chairman of the Trades Union Congress, a series of four large pieces entitled Propellers, and certainly don't look like the work of a girl from a 1940s finishing school.

 Propeller 1

Propeller 1

Throughout her life, she funded her exploratory work, by painting commissions, mostly portraits, several of which have been loaned back to the artist to be shown at this exhibition. Some noticeable inclusions are a portrait of the much-loved actor Moray Watson, formerly on display at the Rembrandt Hotel, and a portrait of advertising guru Jeremy Bullmore's three children - including his actress and writer daughter, Amelia Bullmore, who most people will know from her extensive roles on television in programmes such as Scott & Bailey, Big Train and Brasseye.

 Bullmore Children

Bullmore Children

In the 1990s she devoted much of her work to covering human rights abuses, one notable collection being her Urgent Action Series, painted for Amnesty International. Again, poignantly, nearly thirty years later, the urgent action that was needed then, is still needed now, and so it is appropriate that this exhibition takes place next door to the Human Rights Action Centre in New Inn Yard, Shoreditch.

Despite her age, last year she showed a brand new exhibition of 22 pieces, entitled Opposites: Conflict and the Human Mind, and interactive display that explores cognitive dissonance. A repeat of this show will take place within this retrospective.

In addition to over seventy pieces of Szego's work, the exhibition features pieces by other artists, including a portrait of her by Feliks Topolski, which, like much of this exhibition, has never been shown in public before.

Gilly Szego: A Retrospective runs from 7 to 12 December 2017 at Protein Studios, New Inn Yard, Shoreditch.