Throughout the centuries, women have been involved in making art, whether as creators and innovators of new forms of artistic expression, patrons, collectors, sources of inspiration, or significant contributors as art historians and critics.
Women have been and continue to be integral to the institution of art, but despite being engaged with the art world in every way, many women artists have found opposition in the traditional narrative of art history. They have faced challenges due to gender biases, from finding difficulty in training to selling their work and gaining recognition. So how have women come forward as such strong voices in art and art history today, and how do we go about telling the stories of those who were forgotten by history?
How have women been represented, underrepresented, and misrepresented in art history?
Gwen John, _Self-Portrait_, 1902, oil paint on canvas, 44 x 34 cm (Tate)
According to a story by Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer from the first century C.E., the first drawing ever made was by a woman named Dibutades, who traced the silhouette of her lover on a wall. Whether you choose to believe this account or not, it is worth noting that although Western mythology tells us that a woman was the first artist, her female successors received little attention until the end of the 20th century. From antiquity onwards, only a small sample of women found their way into the tales of the greatest artists. Even then, they were often described as unusually talented women who overcame the limitations of their gender in order to excel in what was believed to be a masculine field. British artist Mary Beale (who you can learn more about in this video) was a successful portraitist in the late 1600s, but much of her success was attributed to the fact that her husband oversaw their studio and presented her works as experiments in the painting methods he developed. Gwen John, whose self portrait appears isolated and scrutinising, struggled for recognition in a field dominated by men, including her accomplished brother Augustus.
For centuries, women were systematically excluded from the records of art history. This was due to a number of factors: art forms like textiles and what we call the “decorative arts” were often dismissed as craft and not “fine art”; many women were kept from pursuing a general education, let alone arts training; and finally the men who dominated the discipline both in practice and history often believed women to be inferior artists. As artist and instructor Hans Hoffmann once said in a “compliment” to the influential abstract expressionist painter Lee Krasner in the mid-20th century: “This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.”
But beginning in the 1960s, with equal rights and feminist movements in full swing, there was a boom of women teaching and studying in art schools in the United States and Europe. These became sites of feminist activity, encouraging the representation of women in museums and galleries. This movement of women in the arts fostered a large body of theory and diverse artistic practice, redefining what was possible in the studio and beyond and paving the way for many women artists practicing today.
Women artists in the 20th century: a changing landscape
Women have always been artists, and there always have been glimpses of women’s art within male-driven societies. Even when it comes to the earliest works of art known to us, like the voluptuous Venus of Willendorf from 25000 B.C.E. and other small stone carvings, no one is certain if these works of art were created by women or men. On the other hand, objects like weavings and clothing have always been associated with women’s craft, from the story of Penelope’s courageous weaving in Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey, from 800 B.C.E., to the 11th century Bayeaux Tapestry, a 270-foot long fabric document telling the story of medieval Britain, likely woven and embroidered by women. Still, women artists faced difficulty in the centuries that followed when trying to engage with the art world and canon.
But beginning in the 20th century, things began to change not only for women artists, but for women across the domestic and public spheres. A new women's movement, with an emphasis on the advocacy of equal rights, organisations devoted to women's interests, and a new generation of female professionals and artists transformed the traditionally male-driving social structure around the world. These social shifts, which began to emerge at the beginning of the century, developed further with the advent of World War I and expanding global unrest, propelling more women into the workforce and exposing them to social, professional, and political situations that had previously been limited to men.
Despite being marginalised and sidelined by the male members of the group, artists like Helen Saunders and Jessica Dismorr pushed to be card-carrying members of the Vorticist movement. French painter Francoise Gilot forged a visual style and identity entirely her own despite being known mainly as Pablo Picasso’s lover and working in close proximity to major artists like Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger in the 1940s. Surrealist women painters and sculptors like Eileen Agar and Louise Bourgeois were iconoclasts in their explorations of mind and body, developing fluid, intimate, and openly sexual subject matter.
With a renewed sense of agency and confidence through their art, what issues have women artists chosen to address? Because of the different societal and developmental contexts since the 1960s, building upon those from the early 20th century, many women artists currently address personal and transnational issues of identity, exploring global and diasporic politics. The works of exile artists such as Mona Hatoum and Shirin Neshat tell stories of loss and insight through conflicting countries, cultures, and gender roles. Meanwhile artist Sonia Boyce’s film, photographs, and paintings bring racist stereotypes to light. (For an in-depth look at Boyce's work, commentary from the artist and curators, and suggested discussion activities, click here.)
Linder, _Untitled,_ 1976, printed papers on paper, 27 x 19 cm (Tate)
Other female artists use their art to speak to the particular issues that they face as women. In the 1970s, Margaret Harrison used playful and ironic drawings to point out the objectification women faced in their day-to-day lives. In the same decade, artist Linder drew on the spirit of punk and the anti-establishment politics of Dada to create photomontages that subverted traditional media images into unsettling statements. Filmmaker Barbara Hammer used footage of her own body to advocate for more open depictions of lesbian sexuality, while today artists like Cornelia Parker are encouraging us to think about how idealised images of the female body measure up against the figures of real, living women.
By calling attention to identity, sexuality, politics, and history, women artists have dominated the art debates for the last several decades. But how do we go about talking about the women who art history forgot?
How should we tell the stories of forgotten women artists today?
Do you think that courses, books, and museums dedicated solely to women artists might be somehow exclusive? Do they somehow sideline cultural production by women by declaring them something separate from traditional art historical canons? On the other hand, would simply adding women’s names to the canons only enforce a traditional approach to art history without challenging it? Might labelling “women artists” unwittingly establish misleading links between gender, biography, and creative output?
These are questions that artists and historians continue to tackle today. Groups like the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of women artists and art professionals, work to fight discrimination and raise awareness of the issues that women face in the art world. They do this through staging interventions and protests, wearing gorilla masks to take the focus away from their identities. They reframe the question “Why haven’t there been more great women artists in Western history?” asking instead “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout Western history?”
Guerrilla Girls, [no title], 1985-90, screenprint on paper, 28 x 71 cm, (Tate)
The project of seeking out women artists excluded from the canon has also encouraged a redefinition of art practices themselves, inviting us to rethink what we call the “decorative arts,” installation art, and performance art revolving around artists’ bodies. By encouraging scholars to seek out these forgotten women, the project continues on today. It is opening up beyond the Western canon to include women of colour from around the world, women who help us understand that there is no one “female art” but rather that art shapes and is shaped by culture, that it conveys cultural ideas about beauty, gender, and power, and that it can be a powerful tool to question issues of race, class, and identity.