Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?
Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.
– Guerrilla Girls, 1989
This is just one of the alarming figures discovered by the anonymous group of female artists dedicated to fighting sexual and racial discrimination within the art world – the Guerrilla Girls. The collective formed in New York in 1985 in response to an exhibition at the MoMa which was supposed to represent the top artists in the world, yet only 13/169 artists were women.
These feminist avengers are now famed for sporting gorilla masks (not only a fierce look but a way of keeping the spotlight away from their personal lives or work) and using provoking questionnaires to reveal the extent of inequality in leading museums and galleries.
In a world where sexist practices are rife – where the United States has failed to ever elect a female leader, where the gender pay gap still remains prominent and where Bono won Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year award – I thought I’d highlight some of my favourite pioneering artists, that just happen to be female, alongside some illuminating statistics.
Guerrilla Girls ‘The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist’, 1988 / Photo by Katrina Hinrichsen, 2016 / Tate Modern, London
The state of inequality:
Women in America earn 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do.
– Guerrilla Girls, 1985-90
83% of the artists in the Tate Modern and 70% of those in the Saatchi Gallery were men.
– UK Feminista, 2010
Only around 5% of the work featured in major art collections worldwide are by women. Of the more than 2,300 works in the National Gallery in London’s enormous collection for instance, only 11 of the artists are women.
– Tim Symonds, 2011
In the top 100 auction sales ranked by price in 2012, not a single artist was female.
– Gemma Rolls-Bentley, 2013
Out of nearly 400 art institutions in 29 countries across Europe, only two museums who responded have 40% or more women artists in their collection. In 21 museums, women artists account for less than 20% of their collections. 282 institutions failed or declined to respond to the questionnaire.
– Guerrilla Girls, 2016
Female students make up a 69.25% majority across the University of the Arts of London and Slade School of Art.
– Time Out London, 2016
Anna Marie Robertson Moses (AKA Grandma Moses), in front of her painting at the 22nd annual Women’s International Exposition of Arts and Industries ata Madison Square Garden. New York. November 1945. / CSU Archives
So, how can we explain such a low representation?
Can it be that female artists just aren’t as good as their male counterparts? Highly doubtful. Then what gets an artist recognition and success?
It seems key to examine the steps taken for an artist to break the threshold of a top gallery; it’s an almost invisible process of personal networks. Traditionally the commercial art industry was about serving the appetites of the wealthy and with that mostly being men, it’s not surprising that this would produce bias. Female nudes have been popular for hundreds of years and typically men were more inclined to paint this subject.
‘For too many centuries women have been busy being muses to the artists’.
– Anais Nin
For a long time women have strived to make the transformation from muse to artist; writer Anais Nin believed that they lack the self-confidence to develop their creative potential. However this explanation does not extend to art history’s more abstract pieces, where it is harder to distinguish the artist’s gender or whether the work is purportedly ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.
Perhaps critics just aren’t writing about women as much. Others, such as Marina Abramovic, think it’s also possible that women aren’t as willing to take the risks that come with being an artist (poverty, rejection, etc.), thus preferring to become art educators rather than wholly devoted artists themselves. Yet, with female students forming the majority in top London art schools, surely the blame can’t be attributed to that singular assumption. What do you think?
Leading female artists
Let’s celebrate the women artists that did make a name for themselves. Of the first few that came to mind – Tracey Emin, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe – it seemed that these ladies all shared common themes in their works in that they put gender and sexuality at the forefront, and boldly at that.
Frida Kahlo in Tehuana Costume, 1940 (gelatin silver print), Bernard Silberstein (1905-99) / Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio, USA / Gift of the Artist
The autobiographical nature of Kahlo’s artwork immediately makes her stand out to the public, in a similar way that it did for Cindy Sherman when she dressed as various movie characters. The artist is both the creator and subject; we are given a personal insight into their lives and this heightens their connection to the viewer.
Kahlo was not worried about her image; she depicted herself in the most compromising situations, naked and covered in blood, with her trademark monobrow unashamedly emblazoned on her face. Her art was for herself, a way of communicating her pain from her bedside, and the world admired her greatly for it.
Untitled No. 1, 1998 (pastel on paper mounted on aluminium), Paula Rego (b.1935) / Private Collection
Likewise, although Rego did not focus on self-depictions, her works were not afraid to put women in less than idyllic positions, be it vomiting wine by the side of a toilet or with knickers round their ankles. Her art, which often reflects feminism, is coloured by folk-themes from her native Portugal. Among the most notable works she made in pastel are her Dog Women series, which show women squatting, scratching and sitting like dogs – an antithesis of feminine behaviour.
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1922 (gelatin silver print), Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) / The Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA
O’Keeffe made her name through her symbolic flowers. Mounted on large canvases and vibrant in colour, she emphasised the natural beauty of one of the most intimate and taboo art subjects. She felt that ‘there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore’. However the artist also refused to be placed into a subcategory of female art; ‘men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters’.
Judith and Holofernes (panel), Artemisia Gentileschi (1597-c.1651) / Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy
This Italian Baroque artist is a fascinating one to study; she managed to turn the horrors of her own life – injustice, repression and rape – into brutal biblical paintings that acted as a war cry for oppressed women. She was raped when she was 19 by Florentine artist Agostino Tassi and was subjected to a gynecological examination and torture using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year but never served the time.
In an era when female painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community, Gentileschi was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno. Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressive painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio. Her works are filled with strong, violent and suffering women, her most successful being the bloody scene of Judith and Holofernes. Some speculate that the case of her rape released her from societal pressures, as it created an understanding of why some of her works were filled with defiant women, rather than examining the style of those influencing hers.
…plus this incredible woman for the sheer skill in painting with her feet. Proof that you shouldn’t let anything hinder your creative capacity!
Woman painting with her feet (b/w photo), French Photographer, (20th century) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn
– Who’s your favourite female artist? –
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Guerrilla Girls: Is it Even Worse in Europe? is showing at Whitechapel Gallery until 5 March 2017
The Guerrilla Girls’ work is also currently on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Tate Modern.
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