Let’s Talk About Sex
For centuries our attitudes towards female artists, and the art they produce, has been horribly prejudiced and biased. Is that at last starting to change, asks Ivan Lindsay
SINCE ANTIQUITY, WOMEN artists have been creating artworks alongside men, but their achievement has often been belittled and the value of their work is still only a fraction of that of male artists. The record for a sculpture made by a woman is the $10.7 million paid for Spider (2003) by Louise Bourgeois at Christie’s in November 2011, and the most valuable artwork in any medium by a woman is Natalia Goncharova’s Les Fleurs (1912), which fetched $10.8 million at Christie’s in June 2008. These prices are roughly a tenth of what the most valuable male artists sell for, such as Picasso or Munch, who have sold for $106 million and $120 million respectively.
Why is women’s art only worth a tenth of that of male artists? Is their art only a tenth as good, or are their prices held back by gender bias? Some assert that the reason is one of quality. Linda Nochlin, for example, in her 1988 work on the subject, Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, says: ‘The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones… That this should be the case is regrettable, but no amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male chauvinistic distortion of history. There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, de Kooning or Warhol.’
Others maintain that the best of women’s art is often reattributed to their male contemporaries to make it more valuable — Judith Leyster turning into Frans Hals and Camille Claudel into Rodin, for example — and that women’s art production has always been underappreciated because most art buyers are men and many men have traditionally not believed women capable of creating masterpieces.
The role of women in art has changed over the centuries and a survey of their changing status is worth reviewing. There were times when women were highly appreciated for their artistic production. In Neolithic times, cultural anthropologists believe, women were mainly responsible for much of the artistic production, including cave paintings, pottery, textiles and jewellery.
Ancient references by Homer, Cicero and Virgil mention the prominent roles of women in artistic production. Pliny the Elder talks highly of painters such as Helena of Egypt, the daughter of Timon of Egypt, and there are glowing references to other painters in ancient Greece, such as Olympias, Iaia, Kalypso and Timarete. Since they didn’t sign their works, we don’t know what they created.
Above: Judith Leyster (The Concert, 1931-1933) lived in the shadows of Frans Hals. Below: The 20th Century saw doors open for the likes of Tamara de Lempicka (Jeune Fille en Vert, 1930)
IN THE EARLY medieval period, women, particularly nuns in convents, were leaders in the production of illuminated manuscripts, embroideries and carved capitals. They ran several embroidery workshops such as those at Winchester and Canterbury. The Bayeux Tapestry, the most famous embroidery of this period, is believed to have been made in a convent. From the 12th century, women were allowed to be part of artisan guilds and run their husbands’ businesses if widowed (the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, for example). In England they created the rich textiles with gold and silver thread known as the Opus Anglicanum that were used in both ecclesiastical and secular settings. However, the arrival of printing meant artistic production became mechanised and increasingly under the control of men.
The Renaissance saw the arrival of a few named women as artists, such as Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguisciola. Humanism helped raise the status of women. Baldassare Castiglione’s text The Courtier was influential and maintained that both men and women should be educated in the social arts. However, in the late Renaissance the training of artists moved from the master’s workshop to the academy; women struggled to gain access and thus began their artistic decline. Study required working from male nudes and corpses, and women were barred from this, making it difficult for them to paint large, multi-figure religious compositions.
By the 18th century, women had been banned from most academies. In the Academy in Paris, for example, between the 17th century and the French Revolution there were only fifteen women out of 450 members, and these were all related to existing members. A few women managed to become accomplished at portraiture, such as Rosalba Carriera and Louise Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun.
In England, the only female founding members of the Royal Academy were Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, and its first full female member was Laura Knight, who joined in 1936. During the 19th century, the possibilities for women gradually began to open up again and the Royal College of Art admitted women from its founding in 1837 but only allowed them to participate in ‘life’ classes that drew a man wearing a suit of armour. Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Susan Valadon became involved in the Impressionist movement; in 1894 Valadon was the first woman admitted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in France.
In the 20th century, a surge of innovation and discovery questioned traditional views and the perception of women artists. Women made further gains, such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Camille Claudel, Sonia Delaunay, Laura Knight, Zinaida Serebriakova, Tamara de Lempicka and Natalia Goncharova. In 1993 Rachel Whiteread became the first woman to win the Turner Prize.
THERE IS A sense now that women artists have made considerable gains in terms of perception of their worth and their value. However, they are still battling against a deep-seated male bias that, due to centuries of cultural prejudice, maintains they are not really capable of artistic greatness. There is a belief that in the same way as the aristocracy has never produced great artists due to having too many social distractions, women also have too many distractions, such as having to fulfil society’s expectations of what it means to be a mother and raise a family and also, increasingly, to make a wage.
Women are attracting more gallery representation and museum exhibitions, although they have a long way to catch up: art museums present an average of 15 per cent of work by women in curated exhibitions, and only 4 per cent of their acquisitions are works by women. Perhaps there is a female Titian or Picasso out there, and it would be wonderful if one were to emerge to take her place in the exalted heights of the artistic pantheon and prove wrong the entrenched male bias against female artists that has been built up over the past 500 years.
Read more by Ivan Lindsay
Ivan Lindsay’s forthcoming book, ‘The History of Loot and Stolen Art’ will be published by Unicorn Press in 2013
Image above © 2012 Tamara Art Heritage Licensed by Museum Masters
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