Here’s a little test for anyone who wants to try. Without googling or other reference searches, make a list down one side of a page of names of male artists that you can quickly think of – from any period. Now on the other side, do the same for female artists.
How did you get on? Much easier to list the guys isn’t it.
My list was Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Manet, Monet, Poussin, Hopper, Lucian Freud, Hockney, Andy Warhol.
The only names of lady artists I could come up with without searching were: Artemisia Gentileschi; Frida Kahlo; Vanessa Bell; Gwen John; Celia Paul (the latter only because I happen to have recently read and reviewed her autobiography – not because I knew her work); Yayoi Kusama and Louise Bourgeois.
This is why my christmas reading will be a book called The History of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel.
This could be down to my lack of knowledge of the history of art. But I don’t think so. Hessel was told by some young people that they hadn’t been taught any women artists in school. Historically perhaps it is thought there are not many women artists so we don’t need to know about them. Or perhaps they couldn’t afford the fees or the time to go to art school, and/or couldn’t get away from the kids or the husband long enough to actually produce any work. Shades of Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. No doubt there is truth in these suppositions.
But it is not that there are or have been no female artists. Women artists there are and have been a-plenty. Hessel’s book has more than 400 pages and illustrations. But women artists are not taught in schools; they do not get solo exhibitions. Their work is not circulated; their work is not sold.
Hessel writes in her introduction that she was shocked when, in October 2015, she walked into an art fair and realised that out of thousands of artworks ‘not a single one was by a woman’. She asked herself,
“… could I name 20 women artists of the top of my head? Ten pre-1950? Any pre-1850?”
No, came the unsurprising answer. But Hessel didn’t just shrug and say oh well, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. She started an Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists concentrating on researching female artists working in different mediums from painting to sculpture, photography to textiles. Which led to the publication of this book.
“Women artists make up just 1% of the London’s National Gallery Collection. It’s first ever major solo exhibition by a historic female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi,” Hessel continues, “was staged only in 2020.”
At the same time, the standard text on art history written by E.H. Gombrich The Story of Art included zero women in its first (1950 edition). The sixteenth edition includes one. I suppose you could call that 100% increase.
It is against these overwhelming odds that young female artists must enter – if they are even able to – into their first years in art school and as working artists.
There is some evidence that things are very slowly changing. Maybe Hessel’s book will be part of that change. I hope it will. Galleries will scrabble to catch the zeitgeist.
The Royal Academy in London is already doing some scrabbling of its own, with an exhibition called Making Modernism featuring four German modernist artists: Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) and Marianne Werefkin (1860-1896).
Making Modernism as a title for this exhibition was very interesting I thought. ‘Making’ implies creating something, being in at the start, does it not? Modernism as a philosophy of art has been around since late 19th, early 20th century right? If these ladies were in at the beginning, why does it take until December 2022 for this exhibition to appear? No answer came the stern reply.
Did I enjoy the exhibition. In a word, yes. Although this is a more complex question when the very fact of the exhibition is itself a milestone.
Making Modernism is housed in a subsidiary gallery at the back of the Royal Academy premises on Piccadilly. It is quite a long walk from the front to the back of the building, upstairs and downstairs several times. The main galleries which are easily accessible from the front of the building, were occupied by another (male) artist, William Kentridge.
So back to the less main gallery. There were portraits of women and children although not often in the same canvas. But without the idealisation of the Madonna and child ideology, some of them seemed quite unsparing. The children all looked stunned – as if they would prefer to be just about anywhere else except where they found themselves.
But I didn’t want to keep thinking about the gender of the artists. I wanted to consider the works as I would any other exhibition. If I had gone to Tate Modern to see Cezanne, I wouldn’t be thinking about Cezanne being a man. That goes without saying. And part of the trouble is that for centuries, it has gone without saying that artists are men. We don’t even think about the painting in front of us as a product of the gender of the artist. We think about tone, light, shade, composition, skill with brushwork, whatever. But in this exhibition we have no choice but to consider gender.
As author Rachel Cusk writes in her assessment of the exhibition for the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine: “the choice that a woman artist such as Gabriele Münter had to make was “to adopt male objectivity and hope to ‘pass’ as an honorary man; or to declare her femininity and its themes from the outset.” She chose the latter.
There is a massive irony in that. Just as a woman is trying to declare herself as an artist on equal terms (haha) with a man, she has to produce pictures of the domestic sphere in which she is forced to spend much of her time and where sitters are readily available to her.
What then is the solution for woman as artist? To pick up the fact of femininity and womanhood and run with it? To wave it in people’s faces with work that is less than comforting. Perhaps. It is after all what Tracy Emin did with her unmade bed.
And that is another name on my list of ladies above.