English Scandal of the month Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Scandal – Women and the art world – why are there so few?

Women and the art world

Hopefully, it didn’t escape anyone’s attention that it was International Women’s Day on the 8th March.  This day has been created to try and help eliminate discrimination against women across the world.  It is really hard to think that in this day and age that this still exists, but horrendous acts still happen towards women all over the world, but discrimination doesn’t have to be large awful acts.  I recently read a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “We should all be feminists”, where she describes a situation where she tips a guy is Lagos who parks their car.  When returning to the car, Adichie hands the money to the guy and he thanks then man that Adichie is with.  Confused, her friend asks her why the guy is thanking him, and she explains that he has assumed any money that she has, ultimately has come from him, and this is something I have personally experienced, while not in Nigeria, but in London.  These small acts are so ingrained that I doubt anyone really considers them as sexism or discrimination, but this comes from a long history of mistreatment and of underestimation of the gender.

Talking to friends, I asked how many female artists they could name. Initially, they laughed at me, saying “Oh I can name loads”, but as they started they realised they could only name 5 and then could describe another 2 but couldn’t remember their names (Sherman, Hepworth, Kahlo, Emin and Kusama were the ones we could name off the top of our heads), whereas when asked to name male artists, these easily racked up into double figures in seconds.

So why is it that we can only name a handful of female artists?  There are many amazing, creative and strong women out there, but why don’t we know much about them?

It could be that women were the fairer sex, the muse, the inspiration.  Let’s face it, so many paintings are of women lounging round naked, or going about their daily life, that it isn’t like they aren’t seen on every wall in every gallery around the world, but… the majority of the artists for these are male.

The easiest answer to this question is that women were barred from any formal art training and the profession until 1870s, which would go some way to explaining the lack of women in the limelight up to that point, but what about the women that just created without the training? Why is it still such a hard industry to break into?

As you might imagine, there is a real divide in the price of work between male and female artists, with women’s art going for a much cheaper price.  Women who work in the art industry were found to earn on average $20,000 less than their male colleague in a study conducted in 2016.  This gap is found in many industries but appears to be more obvious with male work lining gallery walls and the critics who hold the most weight are also predominantly men.  It does appear that the art world is a “job for the boys”.

On my journey of research for this article, I stumbled across many things which were done by women, but either they didn’t get the credit for it, or their work was destroyed by their counterparts; women who should be much more famous than they are now, but still are much less known either because of where they come from, who they are married to or what their background is.

There are no other really easy answers to this question, but I thought I would explore some of the strong female artists that tried and successfully broke through the barriers and those who were forgotten because they were women.

Salome with the head of St John the Baptist – Artemisia Gentileschi 1610-1615
Salome with the head of St John the Baptist – Artemisia Gentileschi 1610-1615 

Artemisia Gentileschi

Gentileschi (1593-1656) was a Baroque painter, who is now considered one of the most accomplished artists of her time in the style of Caravaggio.  Her father who was also an artist started teaching her to paint at the age of 12.  As she showed much more talent than her brothers, her father took to promoting her.  In an article written in 1916 by Roberto Longhi, he described her as “the only women in Italy who ever knew about painting, colouring, drawing and other fundamentals…”.

This compliment is a little of a double-edged sword as he later went on to explain that 94% of her work (49 paintings out of 57) had female protagonists or depicted women being equal to men.  The women in the paintings lacked the feminine qualities of sensitivity, timidness and weakness; rather displayed as courageous, rebellious and powerful, which he concludes means that no one would have believed that these paintings were created by a woman.

Gentileschi was bought up in a predominantly male household, her mother had died when she was aged 12, which could have attributed to the way in which she saw the world.  At the age of 18 she was raped by an artist called Tassi whom her father had hired to privately tutor her.  After the rape, to try and save face, Gentileschi continued to have relations with Tassi under the assumption that he would marry her, but, after 9 months Tassi reneged on this, Gentileschi’s father reported the rape.  Had Gentileschi not been a virgin prior to the rape this couldn’t have happened.  The trial lasted 7 months and during it, Gentileschi was tortured with thumb screws to try and extract the truth from her.  Eventually it was found out that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had an affair with his sister-in-law and that he was set to steal paintings from Gentileschi’s father.  He was exiled from Rome, but this was never upheld.

This trial shot Gentileschi’s name to fame, and recent art critics have suggested she used this to advance her career, as she also managed to be the first woman accepted into the Academy of Art and Design in Florence.

Others have taken a kinder approach, surmising that it was her strength of personality and ability to show women in their true forms which made her a successful and ground-breaking artist of her time.

The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry

Ok… so it isn’t a tapestry, it is an embroidery – I know that everyone and their dog likes to point this out, so I thought I would get that out the way.

This is a 70-metre-long depiction of the conquest of England.  Supposedly commissioned in 1070 by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, this is what most people talk about.  It was created to Norman specifications, but was created in England, probably in Kent.  What doesn’t get discussed so much is who painstakingly stitched it.

Experts who have studied the piece have concluded that this was put together by a team of women, so why aren’t they credited?  Well… my first thoughts were because sewing at the time wasn’t considered an art form, more of a pastime for women, therefore this wasn’t considered a work of art, but more a decorative achievement.  Studies show that the skill and style of the work as well as spelling and language used within the Latin labels were extremely feminine, as they were trying to preserve the Saxon roots.

So, while I can’t tell you any of the names of these dedicated women, I wanted to mention them as they are women looked over in their creative paths.

Hilma af Klint – The Dove 1915
Hilma af Klint – The Dove 1915

Hilma af Klint

Klint is the last female artist I am going to look at, but this is such an interesting subject that I could easily write a book on all the women who have been missed in the world of art history.

Klint (1862-1944) was a Swedish artist, whose was amongst some of the first to work in abstract ways.  A large body of her work predates artists such as Kandinsky.  Klint also belonged to “The Five”.  This was a circle of women who practiced spiritual mediumship and believed in the importance of trying to contact the “Higher Masters” via a séance.

At the age of 20 she was admitted to the Academy of Fine Art in Stockholm, where she excelled in landscape and portraiture.  She graduated with honours and was allocated a scholarship, which allowed her a studio in Stockholm’s art hub.  She made a living selling her portraits and landscapes, but her life’s work was a very separate practice.

Many artists around the same time, followed the same themes of spirituality in finding new forms for modernist paintings, but while artists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevitch did this as peers, Klint remained separate to their movement, creating her work in the privacy of her studio.

The Five would regularly meet and perform séances, which would fuel the visions which Klint put into her work.  She created a series of work for the “Temple” yet she said that she never really understood what the “Temple” was.  The work was thought to be primordial geometrics conveying the balance of humanity.  This work was only displayed on a handful of occasions and after being questioned and rejected by Rudolf Steiner, she decided that the world wasn’t ready to receive her paintings.

She created more than 1200 paintings, which were stored away.  One her death in 1944, the body of work was left to her nephew with instructions that the containers were not to be opened for 20 years.

When the containers were eventually opened in the 60s, few knew what would be revealed.  In the 70s the paintings were offered to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, who declined them.  These were brought to light again in the 80s when Ake Fant took them to a conference.  Klint’s nephew then donated the paintings to the Hilma af Klint foundation.  In 2018 a deal was struck between the foundation and the Moderna Museet to permanently display the work of this forward-thinking artist.

There are hundreds of women I could have written about for this article, because so many have been overlooked so often, and only now is the art world uncovering the women of the past and their talents, even if they aren’t shouting about them in the ways they should.

Feminism isn’t a dirty word, it is simply a word that highlights a gap between gender, and we need to lose the stigma, and appreciate art created by women of the past, present and future is just as relevant.  We need to support the creative industry as a whole and not just as a male-dominated environment, giving equal chances to both men and women.  The gap needs to be closed and we need to stop seeing gender as a reason for discounting important and enlightening work.

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