"Where are the women in art?" is a question that largely goes unasked; we're so used to the idea of women being overshadowed by men in the art world that most of us assume that's just the way it is, that there really are, and were, so few great women artists. Well, that's not the case at all, actually!
In the fourth Unlock Art film released last month, Jemima Kirke - an artist and actor you may know from the HBO TV series Girls - reveals herself from beneath a gorilla mask and utters these words "...there have always been women who were artists. But it was men who wrote the history books, and somehow, they just forgot to mention that." (Pause to let steam blow out of my ears.) In under six minutes, Jessica Lack, the writer of the film (and most of the Unlock Art series) manages to do more to give artists who are women the recognition they deserve, both collectively and some individually, and clear up this tragic omission, then anything most of us will have ever encountered. Because it's simply not a priority; it's not on the agenda. It's seen as a 'fringe' topic. As an art student, I was taught about the major women artists, not necessarily always with the 'women artist' label, but of course Frida Kahlo and Georgia O'Keeffe were hailed as important artists....hmm....Cindy Sherman figured in there....Dorothea Tanning the Surrealist painter got a brief mention... actually there were lots of women Surrealists but you have to read many books about the movement to find out who they were, and even so they're usually positioned as 'girlfriend of'. Add maybe a handful more names and you got the sense it was a comprehensive list. I mean, you'd have thought women must not have been interested in, or have been capable of, painting in an abstract expressionist style! But they were. Lee Krasner - who? Elaine de Kooning - yes her last name is familiar but what did she do... And they weren't the only ones. And if you focussed on women artists as the subject of a paper or project you were branded a feminist - not that there's anything wrong with that! But hey, maybe you just thought it was brilliant art.
Watch the film to find out which 17th century painting hanging in the Louvre was wrongly attributed to a man. (Oh there's so much jaw-dropping stuff in there I want to give it all away - you really must see it.)
After the film we had a fascinating discussion with Jessica and Berlin-based British artist Olivia Plender also joined (more on her below). I think it was Jessica who pointed out, 'Women appreciate the art, men collect it.' (I asked if the gender breakdown of practising artists is known and was told that 75% of British art school graduates are women. So it must be that these few male artists are just so amazing, then? Not so fast. It's largely men who have the money to buy the art, men who own the galleries and choose their potential stars - essentially continuing to write the history books with a gender-skewed view of great art. With this on my mind since our talk, I couldn't help but notice that of the bidders in an auction of dollhouses designed by well-known architects who were named, all were men. But about 30% of the artists that the architects collaborated with were women, which is as much as double the usual representation of galleries and museums, even the major ones! However, it should be noted that later in the day, Linda Bolton would inform us of how the volume of women’s artwork in the Tate galleries has increased to 1/5th of the collection these days - that's 20%. It's an improvement.
Speaking of Tate and women in art, when we were at Tate Modern back in September for the debut of the Unlock Art film series, an exhibition of an artist named Mira Schendel (1919-1988) was running. She is one of Latin America’s most important and prolific post-war artists but not commonly known elsewhere. It was the first international full-scale survey of her work - 250 paintings, drawings and sculptures exploring "universal ideas of faith, self-understanding and existence" (and it all just looked so cool). I can honestly say I've never enjoyed viewing a collection as much as I have hers. The variety of media was rich - I loved her use of transparency - and jaw-dropping large-scale installations had me asking - who was this woman and why did I not know her? And how many other great women artists are out there?
During our rousing discussion about the film we had to be reminded lunch was waiting for us upstairs in the Terrace Grill and Bar restaurant, and the theme was, of course, thoughtfully tied in with the film thanks to head chef Michael Dutnall:
And those 'women in kitchens' would be:
We had to match the chef with the course and I think everyone got all three correct - each has such a distinct signature style that it wasn't hard to identify who created the dish. My favourite of the three was Anjum Anand's vivid dessert of poached plums with sweet saffron Sabayon, toasted almonds, pistachio and lemon:
And then there were the drinks. Let me backtrack to the first of what was served before the film, a delicious, non-alcoholic concoction called The Masterpiece created as a tribute to Olivia Plender's comic book:
And the cocktail we were served on our way into lunch was called ‘Lady Blender’ in honour of Rachel Barrie, a master mixologist. It's a twist on her favourite cocktail, Blood & Sand with Auchentoshan 3 wood whisky, Antica Formula, cherry herring, hibiscus and blackcurrant tea, and dry curacao to enhance the citrusy flavours. Franz says it’s a great aperitif, well balanced, with a great finish and I would concur!
Next we were off to Tate Britain for another insightful, bespoke tour by author and art historian Linda Bolton (who I can safely say has the hearts of everyone in the group):
Here we are (well not me, I'm behind the camera) in front of Anya Gallaccio's preserve ‘beauty’ (1991-2003), made with 2000 gerberas, glass, metal and rubber. As Linda tells us, Gallaccio is known for her work with organic materials such as ice, flowers, fruits and sugar. Her installations change over time. In this work, gerberas are sandwiched between huge panes of glass and left to wither and rot. Gallaccio has described gerberas as a ‘disposable commodity’ mass produced all year round. When the flowers were installed at Tate Britain they were colourful and bright, almost vulgar they were so beautiful. The flowers have now slowly died, illustrating what happens over the passage of time. Linda suggested that the piece is meant to depict a sense of life – from being vibrant and very much alive, to death. The decomposing flowers have also started to bleed in a sense, down the wall, giving an impression of blood - you can see this effect on the skirting board. It's quite a powerful piece.
This painting from 1857 was especially moving. It's called Nameless and Friendless, and was painted by Emily Mary Osborn. Linda explained how this is a great case for the women artist in example and output. It shows a vulnerable woman trying to support herself by selling her paintings. Behind her, two gents look up from looking at pictures of scantily-clad ballet dancers to check her out. It’s a beautifully subtle illustration of the plight of an unmarried woman. The woman is with a boy, perhaps her son or younger brother. They appear to be middle class, yet fallen on hard times. She just looks so vulnerable and is clearly at the mercy of the shop owner whose demeaner indicates he's likely to be stingy in his appraisal.
Sylvia Pankhurst in her studio, c. 1904-05
I promised more on Olivia Plender. She curated the important exhibition Sylvia Pankhurst: The Suffragette as a Militant Artist (2013) showing at Tate Britain. Linda describes it as 'Art meets agitation': Sylvia Pankhurst was an artist and campaigner for women’s rights at the beginning of the 20th century. Art that she and other suffragettes made was designed to push the women’s cause. It’s something that gains momentum over the 20th century – this intermixing of art and politics. Olivia explained how this curated work came out of a project at the London Metropolitan University library; she wondered why this work wasn’t represented in galleries. The movement used violence against private property to publicise their cause – rather than violence to people. To them, art was a great symbol of private property, so this was one of the key tactics they used. Mary Rogers for example, famously axed a painting in the National Gallery. Linda also showed us a WSPU tea set which was created by Olivia and used at suffragette tea parties, often to celebrate the release of a prisoner of a cause. This illustrates how the movement stayed together, almost as a family, to protest. The group was mainly made up of upper middle class women and it’s often easily forgotten that these women would have been marginalised from normal society for fighting for the cause and their rights – other women who did not believe in the cause would have most likely disowned them as acquaintances.
Pieces from the WSPU tea set
And this is what Tate Britain tells us about the militant artist:
Sylvia Pankhurst 1882- 1960 made a profound impact on the fight for women’s rights as both an artist and campaigner. Trained at the Manchester Minicipal School of Art and the Royal College of Art, she was a key figure in the work of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) set up with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel in 1903, using her artistic skills to further the cause. Pankhurst’s lifelong interest was the rights for working women, in 1907 she spent several months touring industrial communities, documenting the working and living conditions of women workers. Her combination of artworks with written accounts provided a vivid picture of the lives of women workers and made a powerful argument for the improvement in working conditions and pay equality with men. Pankhurst designed badges, banners and fliers for with WSPU her symbolic ‘angel of freedom’ was essential to the visual image of the campaign alongside the WSPU colours of purple white and green. As the suffrage campaign intensified, she struggled to balance her artistic and political work, and in 1912 she gave up art to devote herself to the East London federation of suffragettes, the organisation she founded to ensure working class women were represented in the suffrage campaign. Pankhurst was one of many women artists involved in creating designs for the suffrage campaign and active in militant protest. Suffragette attacks on artwork are examined in the exhibition ‘art under attack’ at Tate Britain.
The Sylvia Pankhurst work is displayed next to work by Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly who conducted a detailed study of women who worked in a metal box factory in Bermondsey. The artists collected a vast amount of data through interviews, archival research and observation:
And I could go on with more incredible art from the day but I'll leave it here. Thank you to Le Meridien for another fascinating day of discovering; this was my favourite so far. I think all of us were saying we now see things differently, for the better. And in a few hours I'll be screening the next film in the series, Naked or Nude? A Short History of Art Undressed.
Unlock Art’is an exciting series of short films offering an imaginative, witty, and enriching introduction to the world of art. Created by Tate in partnership with Le Méridien, Unlock Art features eight short films that put art under the spotlight, with topics ranging from the history of the nude to humour, Performance to Pop Art, presenting all the need-to-know facts. Bold in approach and rich in content, the film series was conceived to make the arts more accessible to a wider audience.