Being There – Kathleen O’Connor in Paris sees Fremantle Arts Centre stage a major exhibition of painted works by Kathleen O’Connor, one of WA’s most intriguing artists, to mark the 50th anniversary of her death.

After a visit to Europe in 1906, O’Connor was seduced by the bohemian art lifestyle on offer. Shortly after she moved to Paris where she embarked on a creative life far removed from her antipodean roots. There she was surrounded by many other ex-pat Australian and New Zealand female artists, including Ethel Carrick Fox, Thea Proctor and Bessie Davidson.

City of Fremantle Arts Collection Curator André Lipscombe said, “Kathleen O’Connor is a truly significant figure in WA art and I would argue that she is one of the most able painters of her generation. Once ignored by eastern states galleries, she is definitely not overlooked in surveys of Australian art now.”

Originally from New Zealand, Kathleen O’Connor lived a fascinating life. She moved to WA as a teenager, where her father, C.Y. O’Connor was responsible for the construction of Fremantle Harbour and the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme project.

After the controversial death of her father when she was 26, the family moved from Fremantle to a boarding house in Perth and three years later, she embarked on a trip to Europe keen to develop her arts practice further.

Her painting was predominantly influenced by French Impressionists and centered upon subjects across both still life and portraiture. Her early work focused upon painting figures in Parisian urban landscapes such as Luxembourg Gardens.

She had her first solo exhibition in Paris in 1937 at Gallerie J. Allard. On one of the three occasions she returned to Perth to visit family, the Art Gallery of Western Australia hosted a retrospective of her works. Held in 1948 this was the first retrospective of a female artist’s work in the gallery’s history.

Over the years that O’Connor spent in Paris, she moved twice to England in order to escape the ravages of World War I and II. Eventually O’Connor reluctantly returned to Perth in 1955, as Paris had become unaffordable following the war. Arriving back at age 78, she struggled to re-assimilate, craving the Parisian lifestyle and culture she had so adored.

O’Connor gained modest recognition in her home town, finding more success interstate and was eventually awarded a major retrospective a year before she died at age 91. She requested her ashes be scattered in the ocean, in a bid to be closer to her spiritual home in Europe.

Despite many hurdles in her life, O’Connor produced an incredible body of paintings that are a testament to her dogged independent character as much as her talent to capture the spirit of times.

Being There offers viewers the rare chance to view recent acquisitions and the entire Kathleen O’Connor holding of drawings and paintings gifted to the City of Fremantle by Sir Ernest Lee Steere in 1978 on behalf of his mother, the artist’s sister. The City holds the largest collection of her works anywhere in Australia.

The exhibition opening will also celebrate the launch of a new non-fiction narrative by Amanda Curtin, Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, published by Fremantle Press. Being There – Kathleen O’Connor in Paris will show alongside Fremantle Arts Centre Print Award.