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“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”: A Case Study

five female artists 2

This post is a collaboration with Jennifer Dasal from the ArtCurious Podcast, in which we’ve both taken art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and talked about it from new, contemporary perspectives. Go check out Jennifer’s episode here!

It’s easy for the average person to name one or two famous artists throughout history. Most can probably even manage nine or ten. But specify female artists, and things get a lot more difficult.

Even when people can name a few female artists, there’s usually only a small repertoire that gets repeated over and over: Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marina Abramović. Only a handful of female artists have become famous enough to become (somewhat) household names. Why is that? Why have there been no great women artists? That’s the famous art historical question I’ll be answering today, by looking at five specific women artists – along with five gender-related reasons for why they’ve been left out of art history.

Background: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

This question – Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? – is the title of a famous 1971 essay by art historian Linda Nochlin. Nochlin argues that rather than just dig up great forgotten female artists, art historians need to tackle this question at a more fundamental level. She does this by examining the institutional barriers that women have faced when it comes to art – that is, the various barriers that women experience in society. Women just haven’t had the same level of access to education, support, public spaces, and social networks as men. Women haven’t been able to become great artists, because the deck has been so stacked against them.

I decided to use this line of thinking and apply it to five relatively obscure female artists throughout history, asking: why have they not become household names? Is it just because they weren’t good enough, or are there more insidious, institutional gender-related reasons at work that stopped them from reaching their full potential? (Spoiler: it’s the latter.)

Five Female Artists – And Why They Were Left Out of History

1. The Bayeux Tapestry Embroiderers: the anonymous textile workers
Close up of the Bayeux embroidery, which has a cream-coloured fabric background with images embroidered onto it. This close up shows a horse head and the body of its rider. The close up shows how detailed the embroidery is.

Detail from the Bayeux Embroidery.

So I’m cheating right off the bat, because this is not just one artist but a whole bunch: the Bayeux tapestry embroiderers. You’ve probably heard of the Bayeux tapestry (or as it should be called, the Bayeux embroidery, as it’s not actually a tapestry). The embroidered cloth stretches nearly 70 meters across and tells the story of the Norman conquest of England, culminating in the 1066 Battle of Hastings. We don’t know much about its origins, but it’s speculated that it was completed around 1075 – 77, pretty soon after the battle itself.

This is an incredibly old piece of art, and because of that, we really don’t know much about anyone involved. Historians have spent a great deal of time speculating about who commissioned it (the best guess right now is Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror) and who designed it (historian Howard B. Clarke has proposed that Scolland, the abbot of St. Augustine’s monastery in Canterbury, was the designer). There’s one group, however, that remains completely anonymous: the embroiderers themselves, who were most likely women. We know very little about them. They were probably Anglo-Saxon, which we can guess because of their technique and their spelling of the Latin labels. Some historians have speculated that William the Conqueror’s wife Matilda was the chief embroiderer, but that theory is now widely discredited; the embroiderers were likely professional textile artists. And they were really, really good.

Image from the Bayeux embroidery. A man in armour is riding on a horse and is raising his hand, which is holding a pole or weapon of some kind. Behind him are two other men, also riding horses and holding spears.

Segment of the Bayeux Embroidery depicting Bishop Odo.

Now, we obviously don’t know much about any of the people involved in the Bayeux embroidery – women or men. However, what this example makes clear is that women were rarely named in history and, unless they were aristocratic or royal, little information is available about them. Institutional barriers existed back then that kept women from having the same creative autonomy that male artists had, and, in many ways, these barriers have affected the entire history of art. Male artists have been set up for recognition for centuries, in ways that female artists just haven’t.

This is why, until recently, only a select few upper class female artists have managed to overcome those barriers and have their names passed down through history. Historian Sandy Bardsley, in her book Women’s Roles in the Middle Ages, writes, “in part the difficulty of finding medieval female artists is due to the conventions of medieval trade which relegated women to lesser roles in the production of any item, whether it be a piece of woven cloth or an embroidery. While women participated in making such objects, their role was often confined to the less creative aspects of the task, carrying out the needlework, for instance, rather than designing the embroidery”.

We know very little about the female embroiderers of the Bayeux Tapestry, but what they created was a stunning achievement that will hopefully be acknowledged as part of the long legacy of female textile artists.

2. Sita Devi: the “folk artist”
A Mithila painting with very strong, yellow and red colours. Four stylised human figures are seen along the bottom of the painting. The rest of the image is covered in stylised images of animals, flowers, human faces likely representing dieties or the sun and moon, and patterns.

Kohbar (undated), Sita Devi.

 Types of art historically undertaken by women – such as textile work – are often undervalued and not considered “real art”. In the same way, types of art traditionally created by people of colour face the same barrier, labelled “handicrafts” or “folk art” and relegated to a niche category. So a woman of colour working in a non-Western art style is much more likely to have her work go unrecognised. Case in point: Sita Devi.

Sita Devi is one of the most important and celebrated Mithila artists of all time. Mithila painting (also known as Madhubani painting) is a style originating in the Mithila region in India and Nepal. There are five styles of Mithila painting: Bharni, Kachni, Tantrik, Godna and Gobar, each practised by different social groups. All five are characterised by geometric patterns and a flat perspective, often depicting motifs like flora, fauna, deities or daily life. And another important thing about Mithila artists: they are traditionally women.

At first, Mithila paintings were made from powdered rice on the walls and floors of mud huts. Sita Devi was one of the first Mithila artists to transfer them onto canvas and paper in the 1960s. She worked tirelessly to lift up and empower her local community and bring international attention to Mithila art. She received several national honours for her work, and is permanently exhibited in international institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Despite all this, she has close to zero name recognition outside of her home country. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

A Mithila painting in red tones. Three large human figures standing in a row take up most of the image. The space around them is covered in stylised flowers.

Krishna and Rada (undated), Sita Devi.

This could have something to do with the tendency to label her as a “folk artist”. Looking at the descriptions of her works in the Victoria & Albert Museum, for example, you can see that they’re sorted under “folk art” and referred to as “folk painting”. It’s worth pointing out that “folk art” is a term much more frequently applied to non-Western art than Western art. Sita Devi has won national art awards and her work has been circulated in fine arts circles for decades, but still that “folk artist” label stubbornly sticks to her.

In many ways, that label stops her art from becoming more widely recognised. Folk artists tend to be nameless and anonymous. Their art is seen as more utilitarian and decorative than worthy of serious artistic analysis.

This is of course not to say that conceptions of Mithila painting are not changing, or cannot change in the future. There is scholarship dedicated to Mithila art, working to categorise it as fine art rather than just folk art. But female artists of colour like Sita Devi are still far too often left out of art history.

3. Marie Krøyer: the artist’s wife
Two different nineteenth century European style painting side by side, both depicting the same woman's face. In the right image, she is looking at the viewer and laughing, wearing a white dress. In the left image, she is not making eye contact with the viewer and is looking away. Her expression is blank and she is wearing a dark dress.

Left: Marie Krøyer (1890), P. S. Krøyer. Right: Self Portrait (1889), Marie Krøyer.

Marie Krøyer is a Danish painter who lived and worked in Skagen in the late 19th century. If you’ve heard of her, it’s probably because of The Passion of Marie (the 2012 movie that focuses on her turbulent marriages) or because of her ex-husband’s paintings. As so often happens to female artists, her career has been completely overshadowed by the men in her life.

Marie’s first and most well-known husband was Peder Severin Krøyer, one of the most famous painters in Danish art history. Marie Krøyer wanted to be an artist from a very young age, training privately in Copenhagen and Paris, and it’s there that she met her future husband (who was 16 years older than her) in 1889. He immediately fell in love with her. They married in 1891 in Skagen, a small town in the north of Denmark, where an artists’ colony flourished in the late 19th century. Their marriage was constantly plagued by P. S. Krøyer’s mental health issues, and it eventually got so bad that they divorced. Marie got married again to composer Hugo Alfvén, who she had an affair with during her first marriage, before getting divorced a second time.

Marie stopped painting during her marriage with Krøyer. It’s not entirely clear why. Her correspondence shows that she lacked self-esteem and felt that her own talents were much less than her husband’s. She also seems to have suffered from depression.

Nineteenth century European style painting showing a room with a woman sewing. She looks down on her work and doesn't notice the viewer. In the foreground is a chair and a small table with a vase of flowers.

Interiør med syende pige (undated), Marie Krøyer.

Unfortunately, her second marriage wasn’t much happier than her first, with Alfvén repeatedly cheating on her. There’s no evidence that she got any encouragement about her painting from either of her husbands. As a combination of these issues, only a few of her works survive. Meanwhile, she’s been painted as a model dozens of times, with her legacy mostly being defined by her romantic relationships.

I could have included a number of other artists in this category: Marie Bracquemond, for example, whose husband’s critical view of her career led her to stop painting. Or Elaine de Kooning, who tirelessly promoted her husband’s art, and whose husband not only criticised her works but even destroyed some of them. Through a number of factors, women have always been encouraged to prioritise their husbands over their careers, and their husbands have rarely returned the favour. It’s a pattern that we see again and again throughout art history.

4. Xiao Lu: the uncredited artist
A black and white photograph of a woman (the artist) holding a gun, pointing it in the direction of the viewer and making eye contact with the viewer.

Xiao Lu. Image from http://www.liveaction.se/

When I co-hosted my first Wikipedia Art + Feminism edit-a-thon in Bangkok last year, I created an article about Xiao Lu. I had searched for her Wikipedia article a few weeks earlier; to my surprise, I couldn’t find one. I thought that there might have been some mistake, but, as I kept searching, it was undeniable: this woman, who should be pretty famous, was nowhere to be found. I put her first on my list during the edit-a-thon.

Not only did Xiao Lu not have a Wikipedia page of her own, her name wasn’t even mentioned in the page for the 1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition, in which she played a huge big part. (I added her name there too.) Just two hours after the exhibition opened, she suddenly shot her own work with a pellet gun, causing the exhibition to be immediately shut down. Xiao Lu and her partner Tang Song were both arrested. Her gunshots became iconic; in a highly politicised environment, they became known as the “first gunshots of Tiananmen” when the massacre happened just four months later. She was regarded as an inspirational figure by the political and cultural activists in China at that time – the first female artist who was able to achieve a status like that in the Chinese art community.

So, why do so few people know about her? There are many reasons we could choose from: her output hasn’t been large enough, her personal political views have never been clear, she had to go to Australia because of her arrest. But of course, there’s also the fact that she’s a woman, especially a woman of colour. And there’s the fact that she was only recently given full credit for the “first gunshots of Tiananmen”.

When the gunshots were first fired, Xiao Lu and Tang Song left a note for Gao Minglu, the chief curator, signed by both of them and vaguely explaining their intentions with the act. Because of this, Tang Song’s involvement in the shooting quickly became public knowledge. It was assumed that he was the one who instigated it, or handed her the gun, or planned it. In 2004, Xiao Lu publically confirmed that she was the sole creator of the incident. The Chinese art community reacted with an uproar, accusing her of lying because of their recent breakup. Not having a man be part of the artwork seemed to legitimately upset a lot of people. As Gao Minglu writes, “Xiao Lu’s revision lost her the sympathy formerly extended to her”.

In her 2010 semi-fictional autobiographical book Dialogue, Xiao Lu writes: “A misunderstanding, a woman’s fears and illusions, and her silence for the sake of love, allowed him to appear as a co-creator of the work. It was again a woman who raised a gun in late 2003 and took aim at photographs of herself, firing fifteen shots in all. She was telling the world: ‘I am the sole creator of this work.’”

She also describes a letter of support from a curator sent to her after she revealed the truth: “As you say in your letter, this event is also a story about feminism. In particular, it is a story about being a woman in China. I very much understand what you are saying, that being female in China you are perhaps in an even better position to understand the essence of historical fabrication.”

Like so many other women, her authorship was erased from history, and when she tried to take it back, she was met with resistance.

5. Yoko Ono: the demonised muse 
Black and white photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The image is a close up of their faces next to each other. John Lennon is looking into the camera while Yoko Ono is looking away.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1980), John Mitchell.

Yoko Ono is probably the most famous artist on this list, and, unlike the others, she is most definitely a household name in the West. But most people don’t recognise her name because of her art: they recognise her as the woman who broke up The Beatles.

Ono’s treatment in history is familiar: she was the wife and muse of a male artist whose career completely overshadowed her own, and she was unfairly demonised by fans of that male artist as the woman who somehow broke up his band (using her feminine wiles, I guess?). Yoko Ono’s own artistic achievements were completely forgotten, and her identity was defined by her relationship with John Lennon. She was blamed not only for the breakup of The Beatles, but also for negatively influencing John Lennon’s musical style. Her name is still shorthand for “woman who ruins the artistic career of the man she’s dating”. In 2007, for example, when Jessica Simpson was dating Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, some Cowboys fans started calling her “Yoko Romo”, blaming her for Tony’s poor performance. As late as 2015, when Zayn left One Direction, fans blamed his girlfriend Perrie Edwards, who was referred to as “the blonde Yoko Ono”.

It’s only recently that Ono’s image has become rehabilitated. She’s had a number of critically acclaimed retrospective exhibitions, and it’s become increasingly clear that she was, of course, NOT the reason that The Beatles broke up. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney have confirmed this, and she herself has stated that “I don’t think I could have tried even to break them up”.

And it’s a good thing that she’s getting her due, because make no mistake: Yoko Ono is an incredibly important artist. Most people don’t know how iconic her performance art is, and how instrumental she was in the Fluxus movement in New York. She was an absolute pioneer when it came to conceptual performance art, with her “instruction pieces” still inspiring artists today. Her instruction piece Cut Piece (1964), where she invited audience members to come to a stage and cut pieces out of her dress, is an absolutely ground-breaking work, as is her 1964 book Grapefruit containing her first instruction pieces. And that’s not even covering her experimental music, films and activism. Let’s make sure she keeps being recognised for her actual achievements, and not for a false sexist narrative.

A photograph of a small, thick, slightly weathered book. The cover is blank with only the word

The first edition of Grapefruit in 1964.

Conclusion

I’m obviously just scratching the surface of unfairly treated female artists throughout history here. It’s also a very brief overview of each of these artists’ careers, so please, don’t take my word for it: go find out more on your own! They’re worth it!

And yes: I’m well aware that not all male artists become famous, and that there are many other reasons for why these women may not have become household names. But it’s undeniable that each of these artists have in different ways had their careers hampered by various institutional and social barriers that are specific to women. There must be reasons for why there have been no great women artists, as Linda Nochlin writes, and unless you believe that women are inherently less good at art, then those reasons have to be societal. Institutional gender-related barriers are complicated, but we have to start trying to unpack them.

A big thank you needs to go to my collaborator on this article, Jennifer Dasal from ArtCurious Podcast! The ArtCurious podcast is an art history podcast that explores the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history. This article came out of our discussion on why there have been no great women artists, where we have taken Linda Nochlin’s original article and talked about it from new, contemporary perspectives. Go check out her episode on the same topic (and all of her other episodes too, while you’re at it)!

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1 Comment

  1. Very well written. Article is impressive. Thanks for great share.

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