The history of all times, and of today especially,
Forget to think about themselves.
Louise Otto-Peters, 1849
When it comes to women artists, several names cross my mind - Frieda Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lee Krasner, Méret Oppenheim, Artemisia Gentileschi…
Having bachelors in art history doesn’t make one Rosalind Krauss at all, but shouldn’t I know more? Back in college, I remember one of professors almost had a heart attack seeing a pad shaped as a vagina on a poster. I realized, I have put more time and effort in staring at Renaissance Madonnas (waiting for a miracle to happen so I could remember them all) than actually learning something on a subject.
It made me wonder, what did I know about female art anyway?
One of the reasons why I think about it, is tiny book that I have found under the Christmas tree. Women artists published by The National Museum Of Women In The Arts. Museum was incorporated in Washington, in November 1981 as a private, non-profit institution. Collection included pieces gathered for over twenty years by art historians Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and Wallace F. Holladay. In 1983 the museum purchased a 78,810-square-foot Washington landmark, near the White House, formerly a Masonic Temple, and refurbished it. Since then NMWA had hosted countless exhibitions devoted to female art, including most famous one - American Women Artists, 1830-1930 – which took place in the spring of 1987. One of the countries most famous, feminist and art historian, Dr. Eleanor Tufts, was curator for the show. Museum had also commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to write Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra for an opening concert.
Enough with the facts. I’m going through the book :
Middle ages – Saint Hilda of England and Hildegard of Bingen…Nothing, well… I hated medieval art anyways.
Renaissance - Sofonisba Anguissola – according to this book she is considered to be the first women artist to achieve international renown. Ummm yes, right…
Seventeen century – Lavinia Fontana, a daughter of Prospero Fontana. Judith Leyster with very much Franz Hals looking paintings. Rachel Ruysch and Clara Peeters with beautiful, but clearly influenced, by pieces of Netherlands still life masters.
Moving to 18th century, I learn about Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun. With her very familiar sounding last name, become one of Marie Antoinette’s favorite painters.
In the 19th century famous female artist was Camille Claudel who studied At Rodin’s studio, and also Mary Cassatt who was discovered by Degas.
In the 20th century things get a lot better, still these names like De Kooning or Delaunay, bring more the sight of Woman and Bicycle and Circular Forms than Rythme ( by Sonia Delaunay) or portraits by Elaine de Kooning.
It’s not a place for me here, to explain why things were the way they were. The matter of the problem has been solved by Linda Nochlin in her essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?.
Clearly, women deprived of access to education and being put in the social role of look pretty and be quiet (treating the problem very superficially) weren’t able to create truly great art.
But I still get a feeling like we’re trying to prove history wrong.
I haven’t got any problem with feminism and feminists. I do have a problem with any kind of radicalism. When it gets to the point, where I read that female art, actually was as great as male’s one I shake my head in disbelief, as when I read that rescuing children and women from the sinking ship first, is discrimination.
Maybe Copernicus was a woman, but as much as I’d love them to be, Giotto, Michelangelo, El Greco, Titian, Monet and many others, who changed the art within centuries – weren’t.
I’m asking myself another question though.
Where would be Krasner without Pollock, but would we know Pollock without Krasner ? Who would be Kahlo without Rivera, but would we focus on Diego’s murals, without even mentioning story of their marriage? Whose portraits would we admire, if it wasn’t for Rembrandt’s love for his wife Saskia ?
Maybe it is time to admit that female art isn’t better, isn’t worse, isn’t even equal, cause how could it be ?