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Bridget Riley at the press preview of her Flashback exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpoo
Strokes of genius … Bridget Riley at the press preview of her Flashback exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Photo: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Is there a glass ceiling for women in the arts? When it comes to visual art, a superficial glance by a visiting alien would see 21st-century Britain as one of the best places and times there has ever been for women working as artists. I went to Rome for my holidays. I gorged on paintings, frescoes and statues, from ancient Roman mosaics to Canova nudes. None of these great works of art of ages gone by are credited to women – which doesn’t mean there were no women artists at all before modern times. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder lists women artists. The Renaissance writer Giorgio Vasari also praises a handful of women. But art was organised as a male-only craft and women could only sidestep the guild system under exceptional circumstances, such as being the daughter of a painter, like the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

The exclusion of women from art was a holocaust of talent, a denial of half the human imagination. That’s over. Modern art appeared at the same women campaigned for the vote. In Britain, the contemporary art boom that started in the late 1980s has – apparently – seen as many women as men become famous. Compare the art world of Tracey Emin with the art world of Artemisia Gentileschi and it’s obvious a lot has changed.

Or has it?


Jonathan Jones
The Guardian


‘Black Rosy,’ by Niki De Saint Phalle Court. Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum

Notice a tint of gender bias in terms like “masterpiece” and “old master”? Now a picture is emerging of not just historical, but persistent discrimination against women in the art world. A slew of recent museum exhibitions aims to fill in the blanks. The latest, “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968” (at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 9), brings a feminine presence to the masculine-sounding term “pop art.”

The show features works by 25 women who helped develop pop art but who (except for the sculptor Marisol) disappeared from art history books. “These artists were all visible once,” says Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, who conceived the show. Yet when the first art histories and surveys of the movement appeared, he adds, “There was a real critical culling.” Mr. Sachs made it his mission to “cherchez la femme” and says, that through exhaustive research, “I found the women!”


Carol Strickland
Christian Science Monitor

In what some critics describe as a long overdue effort, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is this month publishing “Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art.” The 500-page book, in the works for more than four years, is the centerpiece of a larger initiative to shine a light on women artists. From last December through summer, 2011, MoMA’s curatorial departments are mounting 15 large and small exhibitions that highlight and temporarily increase the presence of works by women in the museum.


Judith H. Dobrzynski

I attended a reception at the Museum of Modern Art for Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. The event was heartening — many women in the art/museum world, and plenty of men, too, showed up to celebrate.

Still, I can’t help but think this is “too little, too late.” I wrote an article about the effort for the June issue of The Art Newspaper, which is out now. The story is not online — you have to go buy the paper, which is a fat 120 pages. It’s got to have something for everyone.

But here I’ll share a few things about Modern Women, some in the story and some in the outtakes…


Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

Eva Hesse Studiowork, 1968, Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. Photograph: Abby Robinson/Courtesy of the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Of the many shows that make this a golden year for contemporary art at the Edinburgh festival, one stands out as momentous: 50 sculptures, some never shown in public before, by American artist Eva Hesse (Studiowork, Fruitmarket Gallery, until 25 October).

When the New York Times famously announced that Hesse was “at the outset of a brilliant career” in 1970, its prediction was shockingly mistaken. Not because she had already established herself as a great sculptor by the age of 34, but because she had recently died of cancer.

This anecdote is bitter proof for those who still insist upon Hesse as the Sylvia Plath of art: a refugee from the Nazis, her mother a suicide, her marriage ending in desertion just before the tumour was discovered. But the life is entirely divisible from the art, as these marvellous creations testify. Every little thing here, from the “painting” made of washers to the ribboning scroll of mesh that holds itself nonchalantly aloft, is vivacious, dynamic, surprising, droll – by all accounts, like the artist herself.

What looks like a sleeve of corrugated bone holds a glowing light within it, an inviting, red-gold interior into which one might imagine crawling, all achieved with nothing but latex-dipped cheesecloth and light. A wick spirals out of a wax pot, trying to escape yet forever umbilically connected.

Two black balloons dangle from the wall, a deflated sphere and a pendulous sausage dog knocking about, an odd couple tied together. The effect is touching and inexplicably humorous though it has something to do with opposites, little and large, Laurel and Hardy, and the relationship between them; lightsome, they are cast in heavy bronze.

Many of these works, untouched since her death, come straight from Hesse’s studio. A length of cheesecloth folded over and dipped in latex dangles from the ceiling like some magnificent shroud, running all the way from parchment to honey in colour and texture. A flotilla of iridescent vessels, apparently aged by time and tide, is formed in cheap tissue. Hesse’s works have turned silver and gold with the years. What hasn’t changed is the sense of her hands manipulating the materials: the maker’s mark in the work.

To speak of these sub-objects (as they are described in the superb catalogue) as vessels is to miss out all sorts of other nuances of shape. And that’s the joy of it – Hesse hits just beyond verbalisation. It is part of her gift to evade analogy and association and make things so eccentric and awkward they look like nothing else, or nothing else before them. For sculptors have been trying to emulate Hesse ever since.


Laura Cumming

It was my good fortune a week or so ago to hear the Luce annual lecture on American creativity, given by pioneer feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. The title of her lecture was Dislocating Tradition: Women Artists and the Body, from Cassatt to Whiteread. Having for years grappled in vain with the peculiar role of the body as both medium and message in women’s art, I hotfooted down to the Royal Academy and prepared to have my perplexities unknotted and my vestigial puritan revulsions dispelled.

It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject. At first, this was manifest in a tendency to produce an inordinate number of self-portraits. In 18th-century France, Vigée-Le Brun never tired of painting flattering portraits of herself, which was quite a good move for a society portrait painter, who was expected to do a similar job on her clients. At the same time, Angelika Kauffmann produced dozens of dreamy versions of herself not only in portraits, but also in allegorical paintings in which she figured as the personification of art or music or both. Frida Kahlo could engage with no subject other than her fictionalised and glamorised self. Her proliferating faux-naive paintings are advertisements for the performance that was her life.

For the women artists of surrealism, in the words of Whitney Chadwick, “the idealised version of the woman as muse was no help … rejecting the idea of the Muse as Other, they turned instead to their own images and their own realities as sources for their art. Even when the subject of the work is not the self-portrait per se, there is a persistent anchoring of the imagery in recognisable depiction of the artist.” The thought of art as solipsism has me tearing my hair. The convention of the muse is simply a trope figuring forth male creativity; if the convention was useless to women, they could simply have done without it, but, as most of them also chose to become sexually involved with male artists, they wasted a good deal of time playing the muse’s illusory role, apparently unaware that the muse is rarely the artist’s actual bedmate. A male artist’s recognition of his consort in the role of muse is mere gallantry. Why did the women artists of surrealism have to follow such a sterile, narcissistic paradigm? As for their images being recognisable, they made sure of that by posing for at least as many photographs as they made paintings. Most of them put more paint on their faces in a lifetime than they did on canvas.

The advent of performance art produced a tide of women artists, many of whom were not content with starring in their own show without stripping. Since the 1960s, when Carolee Schneeman took off her clothes to perform art in New York basements, I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism, and why it was that so many of the nude female performance artists had beautiful bodies. Could it have been coincidence? Even Helen Chadwick, a serious artist, took pride in displaying her own wonderfully elegant young body when somebody else’s would have done.

Professor Nochlin explained to us that Sam Taylor-Wood’s Portrait (1993) in a Fuck Suck Spunk Wank T-shirt, with her trousers around her ankles, was a “marvellous parody” of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. She pointed out that the cabbage on the table was a reference to the volute out of which the goddess steps in Botticelli’s painting, but she didn’t explain why Taylor-Wood chose to pose herself and let someone else (Stephen White) take the photograph. Any of Taylor-Wood’s art-school chums could have put on the T-shirt and adopted the pose, and Taylor-Wood could have taken the photograph herself. Sarah Lucas’s self-portrait with fried eggs on her chest was correctly described as “as arrogant as any male portrait”, but why did Lucas pose it herself? The fried-egg reference would be as appropriate to any other woman, no? Why is Tracey Emin the subject of all her own work? Is this good or is it pathological? Why does Jenny Saville deconstruct her own body? Why can’t she use someone else’s? There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?

The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women’s art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women’s work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.

Germaine Greer
The Guardian