Sunday, November 04, 2007

Louise Whittle: Why have there been no great women artists?

I'd like to thank Louise Whittle for writing this excellent guest post for The Daily (Maybe) on the place of women in the art world. It's longer than the posts you'd normally see here, but in my view it's well worth reproducing in full, rather than splitting into sections.

Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Rodin, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Millais, Holman-Hunt, Rossetti, Van Gogh, Turner.... These are popular male artists from the 19th century who are still revered and exhibited around the world today. Elizabeth Siddal, Barbara Bodichon, Anna Mary Howitt, Camille Claudel, Mary Cassatt... who they?

Many of these women have drifted into obscurity. Siddal (1829-1862) committed suicide after drinking a bottle of laudanum (the Victorian's cure all) probably due to experiencing a miscarriage. She is renowned as the model of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). She is most famous for Millais's Ophelia (1852). Her melancholic gentle expressive face comes alive as she floats silently down the river clutching flowers. To appreciate this stunning and vibrant painting visit the Tate Britain and gaze at Millais's attention to detail.

Lizzie was a painter in her own right encouraged by her lover Rossetti and Ruskin. She painted along the same themes of the PRB and shows an aptitude for painting and experimenting with different mediums she gave up painting when her depression became too intense. Clerk Saunders (1857), Pippa Passing (1854, pictured right), The Lady of Shalott (1853). A peer of Siddal's was Anna May Howitt a contemporary of Rossetti and Millais at the Royal Academy "pre" school, Sass. Unfortunately, she wasn't allowed in the RA as she was a woman unlike Rossetti and Millais. Others includes Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon.

These women weren't conventional in the least and strove for independence, Siddal risked being disowned by her family and loss of reputation if it was known she lived with Rossetti out of wedlock the double-standards and morality dictated to women.

Victorian women were emotionally, socially, physically and politically constricted. If they painted it was meant to be a past time, dainty landscapes certainly not passionate bold experimental art. Camille Claudel (1864-1943) defied the Victorian woman role model she was very transgressive for her time. Over time her work has been forgotten and her status was reduced to mistress/muse of Rodin (the excellent film Camille Claudel (1988) rehabilitated her work). Her neo-classical influenced style sculptures were eclipsed by Rodin and her work languished in the shadows at the Musee Rodin. And it is only recently her influence has been recognised in the work of Rodin.

Compare Rodin's The Kiss (1887) to Claudel's understated Sakuntala (1888) both marble (though Claudel's marble version of Sakuntala came about in 1905). The Kiss is a piece of erotic and bold sculpture (you used to be able to view it at the Tate Britain though now moved to the Tate in Liverpool). Claudel's projects passion yet tenderness. The poignancy of Prince Dushyanta collapsing to his knees when he is confronted with his true love Sakuntala. The same with L'Age Mur (The Age of Maturity) produced in 1894 that represents her personal and emotional turmoil she experienced with Rodin and his commitment to his wife, Rose Beuret. It is a tragic, intimate and soulful piece which encapsulates her relationship with Rodin. Her examples of her fine beautifully carved work include The Implorer (1899, pictured right), The Waltz (1891-1893) and The Flute Player (1904).

Her work deserves equal praise as it is modern, the narrative flows, passionate, bold, stark and has veracity. Unfortunately, because Claudel wouldn't follow the respectable lifestyle of a Victorian her brother, writer Paul Claudel, got her sectioned under the french mental health act in 1913, she was kept in the asylum until her death. Even doctors said she wasn't "mad" but her family refused to acknowledge that diagnosis and her brother forbade his mother and sister to visit her.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was more fortunate than Claudel but her work has fallen into relative obscurity and she is not as recognised as other Impressionists (Impressionism gave birth to modern art). Cassett was heavily influenced by Degas (as Boating Party, right clearly shows) unfortunately they fell out over the Dreyfus Affair during the 1890s. Incidentally the Dreyfus Affair split the Impressionists with Monet, Pisarro and Cassatt vocal in their support for Dreyfus and attacking anti-Jewish racism while Renoir, Rodin, Degas and Cezanne (Cezanne and Zola had a friendship since childhood yet it was destroyed over Dreyfus) were virulently anti-Dreyfus.

By the late 1880s Cassett became more experimental in style. Her earlier work is inspired by impressionism, everyday life scenes that explores the relationship between light and colour. Her later post-Impressionist work, is much more graphic and less painterly, an example being The Boating Party (1893-1894). And the realism of The Bath (1891-1892).

Victorian women had to contend with the rigid and constricted norms of patriarchy. But with the shifts and changes within society the dynamic of social uprisings and heightened class struggle gains were women by women. In 1971 the art historian Linda Nochlin wrote, during the height of the 2nd wave of feminism, in her ground breaking essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists:

"There are no equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or in our redent times, for de Kooning or Warhol".

She argues that the reason for this is due to patronage, social/political structures and what I would also argue class dynamics and the power relationships in society. Nochlin, in early 2001, wrote a follow-up essay questioning whether the structures had opened up for women and whether her arguments had remained valid in discussing and challenging the discourse of art. The 20th century saw the sculptures Barbara Hepworth, paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo. Nochlin believes that are beginning to occupy spaces in art and making a name for themselves. Louise Bourgeois was the first artist to exhibit at the opening of the Tate Modern in 2000 and one of the main memorable pieces was the gigantic spider.

There are a rich eclectic variety of women artists who work in different mediums. Sam Taylor-Wood's video art, installation art of Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, photography of Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman. The feminist artist Linder (her work was exhibited recently as part of Panic Attack) created the collage Pretty Girl No. 1 (1977) that explores gender roles and their contradictions. It echoes Dadaist Hannah Hoch's Das Schone Madchen - The Beautiful Girl (1919-1920) where Hoch uses collage to explore sexism and the position of women in society.

Hoch also experienced the very male behaviour within the art world. There's the political installation and conceptual art of Adrian Piper that explores sexism and racism. Feminist performance art of Hannah Wilke, text art of Barbara Kruger, Op Art of Bridget Riley, pop installation work of Pipilotti Rist, Shirin Neshat, an Iranian artist who explores the how religion and gender intersects in Iran by using video and photography.

One of my favourite artists is Aussie Hazel Dooney (right) who deconstructs gender and sexuality by transgressing against the usual norms foisted upon women. Though there has been a shift in her work and change of medium. Her latest work Kelly, the first time (Sex Tourist collection) the use of inks, watercolours and pencil creates bold and powerful line drawings that convey graphic sexual encounters but unfortunately Art Melbourne 2007 didn't appreciate her work and was censored because:

"content of the exhibit being accessible to minors and wanted the work re-arranged so that the sexually explicit images would be invisible to the visiting throngs."

There may have been radical shifts in society but women are still subject to patriarchal norms under capitalism in all aspects of life. The symbiotic relationship between patriarchy and capitalism. There are still the contradictions inherent within capitalism and the power relationships between men. The filters may be different but the oppression is still the same added with a class dynamic. Women may have progressed with the art world but who will be more famous in 30 years times, Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin? Who will be seen in an equal light? Obviously I can't project myself forward by 30 years but how will women artists be perceived.

The agitprop DIY feminists, Guerrilla Girls argue in their poster regarding Met. Museum, New York : "Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women but 85% of the nudes are female."


Madam Miaow said...

Fascinating stuff, Louise. Didn't know that the Dreyfus affair had split the artists like that.

Germaine Greer (when she woz good) showed how there were many promising artists who were the wives, girlfriends and mothers of male artists and who supppressed their own talents in order to support their men.

Closer to home, in the left, women creatives are pushed into nurturing, supportive trolley-dolly roles while the men are encouraged to perform and write. So nuthin's changed.

Louise said...

Thanks Madam Miaow for the kind words.

Yeah, the Dreyfus Affair totally destroyed friendships esp. Zola and Cezanne who had been friends since childhood but they never spoke to each other again. Degas was friends with Pissarro and even in death Degas never attended Pissarro's funeral.

Pissarro was the only Impressionist who incorporated the Dreyfus Affair in his work. And he lived for a couple of years late 19th Century in a house not far from me.

It is also interesting what Greer says as it is kinda true that women have and still do take a back seat.

I also think you are right about women in the left are left on the margins, invisible and never really engaged with on equal terms.

There's also an interesting bk called the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood.

Anonymous said...

Throughout history women have been discouraged from art, and had to put the needs of their families before themselves. Are women still discouraged? Yes. At least, definitely from mainstream gallery art.

I think there are definitely a large number of women who would describe themselves as artists online, but it could be that the type of art they choose to pursue is different to the mainstream fine art gallery context.

I'm personally interested in digital art, and always amazed by the sheer volume of amazing art by many, many women on online art communities like deviantart, sheezyart, elfwood and the rest. I do believe that the mainstream art world is still stifling to women, and therefore I find it interesting that many talented artists have benefited from the internet as a medium in which to share their ideas, and get commissions. This is parallel to the fact that many of them have embraced styles such as furry art, anime-inspired art or gone into a sci-fi or fantasy direction, which would not have been judged highly in a gallery context.

So I agree. I have learnt a lot from your dissection of art history and why women are missing. Today, I still think we have a lot to catch up on in the field of women becoming recognised artists.
However, I'm also really glad that the interenet has given many women a platform on which to meet other artists like themselves, trade and explore their own styles. The millions of Deviantart users selling their work on ebay may not be the next Picasso, but they are doing what they love, and that is Art.

Now if only we could get them to be mroe accepted by the establishment?

Louise said...

Anon: the internet is a useful place for women to put forward their work and it is more open and accessible than the usual channels.
Good ideas, Anon.

Matt Wardman said...

Excellent article. My comments:

>Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

I wonder whether "great" should be equated with "acknowledged by art history"?

For great female artists (women is a noun imho), I'd certainly be including Elizabeth Frink, and maybe (can't tell yet) Rachel Whiteread. As I see it, Rachel W is still basically exploring one idea - at her best in "Nameless Library". "Embankment" may a new development.

It could be argued that the Architect Zaha Hadid is a great artist. I don't agree, because her designs fail the "does it work well" test, which should imho be the first requirement of any building.

And I think that I would be including some photographers.

From my own locality, there are some superb artists working with the local "welldressing" community art tradition in Derbyshire, but they will never get much attention.

"patriarchal norms under capitalism"

... please ... vbg

Louise said...

Thanks Matt for the kind words.

Firstly, Matt what do you mean by vbg? Very Bad Girl? Very Bad Grin? or Village of Buffalo Grove? Sorry. Just not sure what you mean.

Secondly, the title is after the Nochlin original article as why hasn't there been a female Michaelangelo or De Vinci or later Van Gogh, Monet and so on. Visibility and acknowledgement is inter-linked with "great". Yes, art is subjective but also it is white male (patriarchy does play a role under capitalism) .

the point as well Matt, is that there are more visible women artists now than there was during the 19th century.

I only chucked in some as I woulda have ended up with a massively long piece (poor Jim!)but yes sure, Rachel Whiteread. And include more photographers and sculptors. And yes, as anon states, internet art. And community based artists as well.

But this was only a starting point and further exploration is needed.