Where are all the women? A brief history of females in art

© courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com
An article I originally wrote for a third year university project.

According to ancient history, the first artist was a woman. She was Kora of Sicyon, daughter of clay modeller Butades, and she supposedly drew the silhouette of her lover on the wall with some charcoal. Reiterations of this account, originally by Roman writer Pliny the Elder in the first century, have been skewed to favour Budates, who is often credited for his contribution to the ‘origin of drawing’ and his innovation of modelling in relief, but there exist few encyclopaedic entries for Kora. This sets the somewhat depressing precedent that women have, to varying degrees, been excluded, underrepresented and written out of art history for almost 2,000 years.
It’s easy to make assumptions as to why so few female artists have received the same kind of recognition as their male counterparts, and these assumptions are not entirely unjustified. The gender imbalance and bias in the art world can be attributed to a number of factors, but ultimately traces back to that most eternal of societal encumbrances - patriarchy. From the Middle Ages onwards, women were commonplace topics within the art and often depicted as objects of desire, but were seldom permitted the access to put brush to canvas or chisel to stone. The evolution into the Renaissance period, as lauded and revered as it is for producing some of the most iconic and universally admired pieces of art ever created, was a virile state of affairs and rife with male dominance.
In Renaissance Italy, women were simply not seen on the street unless they were travelling to or from church. Restricted from entering any kind of formal education, young girls and women were confined to the home where their ability to explore their creativity and individuality was stifled, or at least limited to tapestry and needlework - the “decorative arts”, which to this day are disregarded as art and dismissed as mere craft. The first great female artist to break away from the hegemonic rules of behaviour for women was Properzia de Rossi, a marble sculptor. A master of her craft, she was one of the most proficient artists in depicting the intricacies of the human form. But her knowledge of the male anatomy was to be her downfall, for a female to study men in such a way was a contentious and verboten violation of the status quo, and she was exiled by the art community for her audacity. Her masterpiece, a panel of four delicately carved marble reliefs which she created for the Basilica of San Petronio, now hangs reticently in the cathedral gift shop.
De Rossi may have fought the Renaissance patriarchy, but many female artists didn’t, nor did they especially feel the need to. Surprisingly, the church was a source of great solace for many creative women during this period, as it was a place which provided women not only with the imperishable bonds of sisterhood in convent life, but also the freedom to devote themselves to developing an interest and skill for art, away from the constraints and criticisms of masculine society. This did, however, curb their options in terms of subject matter and potential audience reach. If the name Plautilla Nelli doesn’t ring any bells, it’s probably because she, too, is an influential female artist who has been forgotten by history. Nelli is the only female artist known to have painted a scene of the Last Supper, and her work has only recently been rediscovered but is desperate need of restoration. This is a sad truth for many pieces created by female artists throughout history, but is a disservice groups such as Advancing Women Artists Foundation based in Florence are working to improve.
It took around 400 years for things to really change for female artists. By the turn of the 20th century, women were growing increasingly restless with their meager rights and several significant circumstances such as World War 1 propelled women into professional and political fields they previously had finite access to. As a new generation of enlightened women welcomed in the 1960’s empowered by the colossal eminence of the second wave of feminism, the feminist art movement gained its momentous ardour which metamorphosed art theory and practise for many modern artists. Despite the soaring numbers of women enrolling in art courses and engaging with art on a much wider scale than ever before, the potent patriarchy in the industry blocked female artists from all levels of opportunity. Men dominated as established artists, tutors, instructors, museum and gallery directors, dealers, and collectors, who believed women lacked the artistic aptitude of their male contemporaries and were only interested in the better known or ‘great’ artists - who were, of course, all men.
The philosophies of the feminist art movement acknowledge that art history is a rich tapestry of male privilege; art made by men, for the male consumer. Because of this, many examples of feminist art were rooted in the artist’s conception of the female identity and form, and were cathartic reflections of their experiences in various sexual arenas, namely intimacy, relationships and reproductive rights. A concoction of empathy, frustration and oppressed creativity inspired feminist artists to create art which considered themselves and others as an integral part of society, rather as a separate different class of citizen as many male artists had throughout history. It’s because of this insight which leads some art critics to compare the movement to Surrealism. One can easily recognise a surrealist or feminist piece of art, but their value does not lie in their aesthetic or material qualities - rather, the power of the movements and the art produced within them lies in their attitudes and approaches to making and thinking about art.
Alas, this, too, is a prickly relationship fraught with misconduct. In the BBC4 documentary How to Be a Surrealist with Philippa Perry, Perry asks: “can feminists enjoy a good relationship with Surrealism?” Again, the overarching problem from the advent of the movement was its male dominance, and although female artists were benefiting from the impact of first-wave feminism the socio-political landscape in the 1920’s and 30’s still favoured men. As Perry highlights, women were not mere sexualised objects of fantasy and eroticism for male surrealists (though the display of mannequins by various artists at the International Surrealism Exhibition in Paris in 1938 were hardly subtle in their vulgar and somewhat violent portrayal of women), but were in fact motifs of fascination because they represented maternity and the idea of childhood. Yet, as a movement which celebrates unconscious thought, it’s difficult to look at surrealist art such as Magritte’s Attempting the Impossible and Rape, for example, and see beneath the disturbing undertones or recognise any real respect for women.
All this talk of a crushing patriarchy dating back centuries paints a pretty bleak picture of the treatment of women in the art world. But the times they are a-changin’! Kind of. Notable artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Yoko Ono, and Tracey Emin were unafraid to explore and express their womanhood in their art, and in the process opened up new avenues of opportunity for female creativity. Online art marketplace Artfinder released the findings of their research into own sales performance in conjunction with the launch of their #ArtWorldSexism campaign for International Women’s Day 2017, which aims to challenge the continued inequality in the industry. Their data revealed that women account for the majority of the 9,000 artists selling through their website, and of the 300,000 artworks by those artists, women actually outsell men, and their works sell faster and for a higher total value. Despite this, Artfinder point out that the top 10 richest artists in the world are all men, as are 93% of artists on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and of the top 100 art auction lots in 2015, only one was by a woman.

So where do we go from here? According to Universities UK, there are more female creative arts and design undergraduates than male, and more female students go on to study the arts at postgraduate level than male. These women will likely meet many, many hurdles throughout their careers, not only because art is a notoriously ruthless field, but because of their gender. Hopefully, by the time they graduate, gender parity won’t seem like a fantasy anymore, or the slim likelihood of that happening will inspire them to start their own crusade for equality, or join existing ones such as Art Girl Army and The Bunny Collective. Unfortunately, the glass ceiling is as omnipresent and in tact as it’s ever been. It’s been chipped a little, but it’ll take a while to shatter.

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