where are the women in art history?
Let’s all brainstorm some great artists.
Go on, humour me.
Leonardo da Vinci
The kind of picture that emerges here mightn’t go astray to fellow lip readers. And you’re not alone. In the mid 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls were formed after noting the quite blatant gender imbalances in the art world. The political collective (who adopted pseudonyms of deceased women artists, like Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz) were initially gobsmacked by a 1985 survey exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, called An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition showcased 169 works of contemporary art, with a whopping 13 of those made by women artists.
Germaine Greer has likewise spent time with this topic, writing some intriguing commentary in The Obstacle Race, here and here. Recalling the great masters throughout art history may leave you feeling quite dismayed, and as an art history major, I’ve often come up against this conflict between my love of all things art and my tendencies to side with the female experience.
It’s not all bad though. I really believe that my enthusiasm and love for the arts coexists with my feminist ideologies; one informing the other. This could not be better illustrated than recalling my fourteen year old self, when I first discovered Frida Kahlo. You probably recognise Frida from her self portraits, featuring the iconic single brow and moustache. If anyone was to transform lady facial hair into something glamorous, it’s Frida.
So in high school, I was doing a class called ‘HerStory’ which was all about shining a light on important women throughout history. The class also taught us about the construction of history, questioning the word itself. I chose to do a speech on Frida and quickly became obsessed with her biography. She suffered a lifetime of pain and anguish. As a child she contracted polio, and then at eighteen she was severely injured in a street car accident, causing her to spend recessive lengths of time confined to bed rest. It was during these bouts of solitude that Frida began painting.
Her biography is imbedded in her works, like Henry Ford Hospital and Tree of Hope. These works explore the trials she endured, both physically and psychologically. I’m still in awe by her great capacity to inject her own life, (with all its pain and distress) into her art. She painted her loss, her inability to conceive a child, and her turbulent marriage to revered Mexican painter Diego Rivera. During her lifetime, Frida’s expressive and tender works were overshadowed by the grandeur of Rivera’s career. But in the preceding years that followed her death (at only aged 47), there has been growing interest in her art. I’ve even come across a religion paying homage to her called ‘Kahloism.’ Her paintings tell the story of her life, and there is also a great film (Frida, 2002) that I would recommend to anyone slightly curious about the life and art of Frida. Actress Salma Hayek does an uncanny likeness.
So alas fellow lip readers, do not feel unsettled by the great masters of art history. There is much more under the surface, and the history of feminism informing women’s art practices is a fascinating and provocative one.
By Cara Hine