“The canon of art history is global, however, with the male Western narrative being so unjustly dominant at the expense of others, it is this that I unpack and challenge.” (Katy Hessel)
When I picked up A Story of Art (Without Men) by Katy Hessel I thought I would find within its 520 pages sad stories of women artists who almost made it if only they could have got the right breaks such as investment in the appropriate art training; or ladies for whom art could only ever be a ‘hobby’ because of those burdens society places upon women which it does not equally place upon men. I thought in other words it would constitute some sort of lengthy eulogy for lost opportunities and missed vocations.
Not a bit of it. This book is a celebration, although if you listen carefully it is not without its soundtrack of ground teeth! Within the covers of this minutely researched book are hundreds of biographical accounts and pictorial reproductions of the work of established artists – many successful and even famous in their own times – who have simply vanished. They have vanished from the history books, from galleries, from scholarship, from the curatorial mind.
What has caused this extinction? In one sentence it is this: Western cultural histories have focused on a single race and gender and ignored the contributions of any who do not fit that mould. We are not talking here about art criticism – but rather the exclusion of the woman artist from art history, scholarship and curatorial policy.
What I have particularly enjoyed about this book is Hessel’s refusal to place these artists in the context of their more famous (male) peers. It is tempting even for the most ardent feminist to consider, for example, Gwen John, as the sister of the more famous Augustus. But within these pages there are few such references. Brothers, husbands, lovers, all mysteriously vanish. None of the artists included in these pages is a muse, a sitter or an inspiration for a better known man. Instead Hessel has placed her women within the political and social context of their times; within the sphere of influence and the schools of art and thought in which they framed their work. Exactly as would be done in a compendium of male artists. By the way, that compendium of male artists is effectively the ‘art history bible’ that E.H. Gombrich wrote. He omitted hundreds of artists simply because of their gender.
So who are we talking about. There are hundreds of artists – far too many to list – artists from the 17th century through to the 21st.
I strongly advise reading the book. But here are a few of the new-to-me names:
Judith Leyster, Dutch (1609-1660). At the age of 24 Leyster was the youngest member of the Haarlem Painters Guild – she was running a studio complete with apprentices and three male pupils by the age of thirty). Her career declined as a result of marriage, children, and having to manage her husband’s studio.
Rosalba Carriera, Venetian (1673-1757) earned a living painting portraits and miniatures, with an international clientele.
Katsuschika Oi of Japan (1800-1866) earned recognition as an artist of the floating world but lived in the shadow of her famous father, Hokusai.
Emily Mary Osborn, British (1828-1925) A great campaigner for women’s suffrage she used her paintings to critique the constant setbacks experienced by women.
Jacqueline Marval (French) (1866-1932) painted Les Odalisques, which was exhibited in 1902-3. Hessel finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (exhibited 1907) to be ‘strikingly similar in composition’ to Marval’s earlier work.
Hessel points out a number of potential cases of unattributed influence. For example, still famous and still at the forefront of the avant-garde Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama arrived in New York in 1957 with a suitcase full of drawings and “mountains of creative energy stored inside myself”. Her ideas for a sequentially printed wallpaper were created two years before Andy Warhol produced his ‘suspiciously similar’ Cow Wallpaper.
What joy to discover that from the 17th to the 21st century it is possible to travel through an entire history of every nation and every school of art (not only in painting but weaving, photography, sculpture, performance art) without looking at a single work by a man!
And no, that is not revisionist. That is just rebalancing the scales. All but a handful of these artists have been forgotten. Now that Hessel’s book has won Waterstones Book of the Year Award, that sound you can hear is the sound of galleries scrabbling to catch up. Look out for increasing representation and solo exhibitions in the coming years.
Up next, What July Knew, Emily Koch