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Issue 7

Celebrating Women’s Work Throughout Art History

The myriad achievements of women artists, writers, curators, patrons and art historians

BY Jennifer Higgie in Frieze Masters , Opinion | 01 SEP 18

In an interview with Michael Kernan for The Washington Post in 1983, the then-75-year-old painter Lee Krasner talked about her student days in the late 1930s. ‘When I studied with Hans Hofmann,’ she says, ‘he was very negative. But one day he stood before my easel and he gave me the first praise I had ever received as an artist from him. He said, “This is so good, you would never know it was done by a woman.”’ She expresses no surprise at his statement, which, in itself, isn’t surprising, given that women have, in the main, been excluded from the dominant narratives of Western art history.

Until very recently, the art history most people were taught wasn’t really that different to the one that had been studied in the 19th century. It was written largely by white, Western men who, despite their scholarship and insights, tended to write about other white, Western men. The idea that women in the West have always made art was rarely cited as a possibility. Yet, they have – and, of course, continue to do so – often against tremendous odds. Even today, only 27 women out of 318 artists are included in the ninth edition of H.W. Janson’s textbook, Basic History of Western Art (2014) – which is up from zero in the early 1980s. Commercial galleries still, on the whole, represent far more male than female artists and museum collections are heavily weighted to the achievements of men.

In 1971, the late Linda Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’ was published in Artnews. In an interview in 2015, she explained how it came about: ‘I wrote [the text] as the direct result of an incident that took place at Vassar graduation in 1970. Gloria Steinem was the graduation speaker […] she had been invited by my friend Brenda Feigen, who was then a graduating senior. Her brother Richard Feigen was there. He was already a famous gallery person, the head of the Richard Feigen gallery. After the ceremony, Richard turned to me and said, “Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?”’ Nochlin’s eviscerating answer analyzing the structural exclusion of women artists from the mainstream includes the following oft-quoted statement:

Things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education – education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics or the arts.

Generally speaking, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, women were forbidden to study live nude models, meaning, of course, that they were barred from learning a central skill set required for the professional artist – which is why so many of them specialized in still lifes and self-portraits. There are countless stories of women struggling to be accepted as serious artists in the face of mass exclusion. Take, for example, the tale of the Dutch flower painter Margareta Haverman who, in 1723, submitted a piece to the Académie Royale in Paris but was expelled as a liar, as it was judged too accomplished to have been done by a woman. When London’s Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768, the artists Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser were among the 34 original members; yet, in Johan Zoffany’s painting commemorating this momentous achievement, The Academicians of the Royal Academy (1771–72), these two remarkable women are depicted not among their male colleagues – who are seen discussing a nude model – but by near-unrecognizable portraits on the wall. The reason? They were not permitted to enter the life-drawing room.

To commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK – though only to women who were over the age of 30 and owned property – the seventh edition of Frieze Masters magazine is themed around the myriad achievements of female artists, designers, art historians and art patrons throughout history. Shahidha Bari pays homage to Kauffman and Moser; Griselda Pollock proposes that Impressionism was the first gender-equal movement in Western art history and discusses the work and influence of the great painter Mary Cassatt, who was finally accorded her due with a major survey at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris earlier this year; Sheryl Reiss explores the contributions of women art patrons from the time of the Pharaohs to the 17th century; Claudia Calirman looks at trailblazing female Brazilian modernists; Margo Neale discusses the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the centrality of women’s creativity to Australian Indigenous cultures; and Charmaine Nelson highlights the extraordinary life of the 19th-century artist Mary Edmonia Lewis, who was born into poverty and was to become the first sculptor of both African American and Indigenous heritage to achieve international acclaim. In the front section, Alice Twemlow considers the legacy of women designers who studied at the Bauhaus; Jessica Lack examines the women artists who helped shape the suffragettes’ identity; Jennifer Kabat visits Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts; and Amy Sherlock celebrates the life and work of Minette de Silva – the first female Asian architect to be certified by Royal Institute of British Architects – on the centenary of her birth.

Wanting to cast light on the often-overlooked work of women artists in historical collections, we invited museum directors from around the world to nominate an important piece from their institution. Respondents include: Jean-Luc Martinez of the Louvre; James Rondeau of the Art Institute of Chicago; Sabine Haag of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum; Ann Demeester of the Frans Hals Museum; and Deborah Swallow of the Courtauld Institute of Art. For the seventh year in a row, we have invited a cross-section of international artists to nominate a work from the past by an artist who has inspired them – the only difference being that, this year, we asked them to focus on women artists. 

We’re honoured that the renowned art historian, novelist, artist and poet Barbara Novak answered our back-page questionnaire. In these troubled times, it’s important to remember what a significant role art plays in allowing us to better understand the world. In the words of Novak: ‘Art history has always seemed to me to be the greatest index to history the world has ever known, skirting language barriers and offering a template for reading each culture visually and on its own terms: tribally, nationally, geographically or temporally.’ That this template now accommodates the achievements of women artists is cause for a long – and very overdue – celebration.

First published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘Women’s Work’.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.