BY Julie Baumgardner in Opinion | 23 MAY 23

Why Do Women Artists Disappear from History?

From Elizabeth Vigeé Le Brun to Suzanne Césaire: unveiling the lost narratives of remarkable artists who defied conventions

BY Julie Baumgardner in Opinion | 23 MAY 23

In the arts, so much energy and effort are devoted to discovery: finding the next-best-great talent or overlooked estate, or the biggest cash cow. Yet, there seems not to be the same dedication to central characters who vanish, even those centrally important during their prime. The converse of discovery is erasure.

When The Met opened the 2016 exhibition of Elizabeth Vigeé Le Brun – perhaps Western art history’s second most famous woman painter behind Artemisia Gentileschi – for many it was the first they’d heard of her. Now the great revelation of 17th-century Golden Age painting, Michaelina Wautier, is the subject of an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, regarded as a great historical coup. Her work has been circulating Europe, especially the Low Countries, for nearly four centuries, wrongly attributed to her brother, Charles Wautier. 

Woman looking into camera with three men behind her.
Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Too Bright to See (Part I), 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

The Dutch paintings dealer who brought her to market told me in 2017, ‘she paints like a guy,’ then corrected himself, ‘she really is one of the best painters.’ But the example of Wauthier actually brings up a most pressing and relevant issue: her work never disappeared. She did. Though her talent has been compared to Johannes Vermeer and Gentileschi, and her work present in revered Northern European collections, the woman behind the work remained in total darkness.

Take Suzanne Roussi Césaire, the wife of writer Aimé Césaire. Ties between négritude and surrealism were threaded by Suzanne (here on out referred to as Césaire), who shaped the contours of négritude’s colonial critique through the journal she and her husband founded, Tropiques (1941–45), the only remaining source of her writings (seven essays in total). In 1941, André Breton himself picked up the first issue of Tropiques, ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ he wrote, ‘but what was being said here was what had to be said, not only as well as it could be said but as loudly as it could be.’

Man and woman looking at a garden.
Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Too Bright to See (Part I), 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

So why then is Césaire largely nowhere to be found in literary, artistic and political discourse? This was a point of departure for filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, who discovered Césaire for herself in 2018 and since has become one of five experts on the elusive writer, artist, mother and political activist. 

Through a Creative Capital Grant and the Caribbean Cultural Institute residency at the Perez Art Museum of Miami (PAMM), Hunt-Ehrlich has synthesized Césaire’s known writings, interviews with Césaire’s family and archival material into a scripted film, Too Bright to See (Part I) (2023), on view at PAMM until January 2024.

The film’s dialogues and scenes are snippets stitched together, reflecting the fact that ‘the way we think and exist in the world is fragmented,’ as Hunt-Ehrlich put it to me recently. Memory is hazy; her camera lens is too. A grainy film, as if to obscure the beauty of lush Martinique, or even the character of Suzanne, played by the stunning Zita Hanrot. Each scene jumps between fragments of dialogue Césaire herself engaged in, whether on colonialism, exploitation, beauty or hope.

Woman stands inside a sculpture of a spider.
Rosemarie Castoro, undated. Courtesy: Rosemarie Castoro Estate and Thaddaeus Ropac

The film draws a portrait of a woman not quite understood but who left many questions about her intellectual and literary output. Césaire always worked and yet only seven essays remain. She left behind ideas ‘too blindingly bright and beautiful to see clearly’, just as she wrote of Martinique. 

‘Seeing clearly’ might be a clue. Looking at Rosemarie Castoro – whose ‘Paintings 1964–66’ is now on view at the Judd Foundation, New York, and who will be the subject of a sweeping survey at the  Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna later this month – the Brooklyn-born artist’s irrepressible practice commanded and confounded during her lifetime, just as it does now. 

Castoro was a Soho artist, moving into a sixth-floor walk-up at 151 Spring Street in New York in 1966. She was central to the ultra-masculine movement soon-to-be-labelled minimalists, having close friendships with Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Smithson and Frank Stella, and even was married to Carl Andre from 1963 to 1970. Her studio was the hangout spot, memorialized in Hollis Frampton’s film Artificial Light (1969). She showed with Tibor de Nagy, Hal Bromm and Anke Kempes.

Four images of woman in studio.
Rosemarie Castoro, undated. Courtesy: Rosemarie Castoro Estate and Thaddaeus Ropac

Painting led Castoro to sculpture, large-scale welded works of iron and steel made entirely by hand, solo. Her artistic output was defiant. Lucy Lippard once branded Castoro as a woman who ‘subverted or overrode minimalism on its own turf.’ Infused in her practice was emotion, so much of it, and a sense of body, though Castoro rejected the feminist label perhaps more than the minimalist one.

In spite of her artistic influence on Andre and the crew, in her journal on 28 March 1985, Castoro wrote: ‘Review of Drawing Show at Hal’s. My work wasn’t even mentioned, everyone else’s was… he didn’t even say anything bad! It was as if he blocked me out completely because it was too much work to get involved.’

Werner Pichler, Castoro’s widower and estate member who’s been working with Thaddeaus Ropac to bring her body of work into consciousness, explained to me that ‘Rosemarie definitely was not a pushover.’ Neither in her work nor her attitude would she allow herself to be contained, either by convention or expectation.

Without slipping into stereotypes or generalizations, women artists, particularly of the 20th century, often make work that won’t be categorized in simple terms. Castoro and Césaire were self-proclaimed and self-defined as emotional, as responding to their inner lives as well as how their bodies moved through space. Still, their practices followed literary or artistic tradition.

People having dinner at an art studio.
Rosemarie Castoro, Spring group, 1969. Courtesy: Rosemarie Castoro Estate and Thaddaeus Ropac

Histories are written about those who fit in or who win. Though feminist art historian Linda Nochlin fired off her institutional critique, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’ in 1971, she also posited: ‘The problem lies not so much with some feminists’s…misconception – shared with the public at large – of what art is: with the naive idea that art is a direct, personal expression of the individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is.’

Funny, here we thought that the emotional content of art lent it universality. Nochlin closing the door on the limits of greatness limits whose greatness is remembered. So why do women artists disappear, beyond quotidian misogyny? If they couldn’t be contained and controlled during their lifetime, certainly the reductive pages of history can’t limit them either.

Main image: Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Too Bright to See (Part I), 2023, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Julie Baumgardner is an arts and culture writer, editor and journalist. Her work has been published in Bloomberg, Cultured, Financial Times, New York Magazine, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many other publications.