I bought a brilliant book last month ‘The Story of Art Without Men’ by Katy Hessel.
To my surprise my first reaction to this book was anger! Now why was that?
Here we have over 450 pages dedicated to great art by female artists but most were never even referenced - let alone studied - in my 4 years as an art student half a lifetime ago!
As I read about women like Fede Galizia (1578-1630), Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) and Rosa Bonheur (1822 -1899) I thought HOW and WHY have I never even heard these names?
Moreover, why had I not made more of an effort to unearth this information for myself 30 years ago?
So yes – that was why I was angry – I had missed out on SO much inspiring work!
I came into art education as a ‘mature’ student after years of nursing. I knew a little about a handful of female artists but I must have simply accepted the glaring imbalance of male artists to female artists as the norm.
As was standard practice, we all began our studies against the backdrop of E.H.Gombrich’s ‘Story of Art’ – but as Katy Hessel points out even now, in the 16th edition, the book includes only ONE female artist!
A few women did get a look-in during my degree course: Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, Eva Hesse, Barbara Hepworth, Frida Kahlo – often mentioned almost in passing or referred to as the ‘wife of/mother of’. I cannot blame the colleges I attended for my own lack of self-motivated research but there was scant encouragement to dig deeper. A little guidance – perhaps to read Linda Nochlin’s essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ would have been a great ignition point. Oh, for a book like this back then!
Looking back, our official art education did perpetuate the myth that the best painters and sculptors (in fact creators of any kind) were all white males. It may be nearer the truth to say that, great as their merit may be, they came to dominate the artworld simply because all other groups of contributors were effectively excluded and denied opportunities.
I’m really not trying to give white males an even harder time than they seem to be having at this point in history anyway but it is remarkable that the status quo is still having to be challenged when in reality we are merely trying to even up the playing field…aren’t we?
I am not naïve. I understand that art is also a commodity with commercial value but it appears that art made by one small slice of human society has been valued above all else. I do not argue for artists to become genderless, ageless or colourless – on the contrary I think we should all be given the opportunity to celebrate and learn from the entire spectrum of artists and those that rise to the top are there primarily because of the quality of their work.
My winding life path has taken an age to circle round to this knowledge but exposure to this accessible book has been SO positive and I am excited to revisit and revise some art history – via a more inclusive and more colourful lens.
I would also encourage you all to seek out Katy’s podcast – ‘The Great Women Artists’ and find her Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists
Thank-you Katy Hessel.