How To Talk About Art History

It's easier than it seems.

Tag: Sexism

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

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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.

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Where were all the female Abstract Expressionists?

Abstract painting with blue shapes on a black background. A mix of large rectangular blocks and smaller curvilinear shapes.

Blue & Black (1951 – 53), by female Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner

Reader question: “I wonder if there have been women engaging in abstract expressionist art and if we maybe only don’t know them because Clement Greenberg forgot to tell us about them?” – asked by Natascha

Short answer: Yes! There were plenty of women engaging in Abstract Expressionist art that simply never gained the fame and recognition that their male counterparts did. Perhaps more so than any other genre of art (except for maybe Neoclassicism and Minimalism), Abstract Expressionism has always been regarded as a highly masculinised movement. While it’s true that female artists were often systematically excluded and/or marginalised within the movement (hint: most of them used male pseudonyms), they were definitely there, and deserve as much attention as the men.

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Depictions of STDs in Art History

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Engraving showing a man in a fumigation stove (1659), Jacques Laniet. A common treatment for syphilis at the time. Mercury would be placed inside the stove, and a fire would be started to vaporise the mercury around the patient.

Reader Question: “I remember hearing (learning?) years ago that some paintings depict people with physical indications of STDs. Perhaps syphilis? Is this true? Are other STDs depicted in art throughout history?”

Yes, this is true! This is a subject that really reflects how useful art history can be in studying the history of science and medicine, and how art has been used to educate people about medical conditions for hundreds of years. Beyond that, however, we can also use art to see how societal views of STDs have evolved – from simply fearful to judgmental and sexualised.

You’re right, by the way: syphilis is the STD that’s most commonly represented throughout art history, so it’s the one we’re going to focus on (with one brief depiction of gonorrhoea). Syphilis is one of the only STDs that have been around for a really long time (along with, again, gonorrhoea), so it is a disease that has been widely depicted in art history.

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A Brief History of Hairless Vulvas in Art (NSFW)

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Object (Le déjeuner en fourrure), 1936, Méret Oppenheim. A Surrealist sculpture often interpreted as a visual pun referencing a hairy vagina, as the tea set is traditionally feminine.

Reader question: “I loved your post about penises, but what about vaginas? We think hairless vaginas started with porn, but I’ve definitely seen paintings in museums with hairless vaginas. What’s the deal? When did it all start?”

Aah, nudity in art, a subject dear to my heart. Vaginas and vulvas (with vulva referring specifically to the external genital region) in art have a quite different history than penises do, ranging from being symbols of fertility and life to being symbols of shame and impurity. As I wrote in my post on the Female Nude, hairless vulvas have been around in art for a long time. How long? At least 2,000 – 3,000 years, and maybe even since the beginning of art as we know it.

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Site Update: “Art + Feminism” Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

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Tonight, I co-hosted the Bangkok edition of the global ‘Art + Feminism’ Wikipedia campaign.

Nine people total came together in a Bangkok café to learn about Wikipedia, to find out about art and to add/edit/translate articles about woman-identified artists to improve coverage of women-identified artists across the world. At the end of the night, these were our accomplishments:

– Creation of article about Chinese artist Xiao Lu.
– Creation of article about Bengali artist Pratima Devi.
– Translation of article about Indigenous Australian artist Tracey Moffatt into Italian.
– Translation of article about Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook into Thai.
– Translation of article about Chinese artist Bu Hua into English.
– Addition of Xiao Lu’s participation into article about the China Avant-garde Exhibition 1989.
– Addition of the following quote into article about French artist Marie Bracquemond: “The severity of Monsieur Ingres frightened me… because he doubted the courage and perseverance of a woman in the field of painting… He would assign to them only the painting of flowers, of fruits, of still lifes, portraits and genre scenes.”

Over the next few months, I will be creating Artist Features about each of these artists on this blog.

Thank you to everyone who participated, and to everyone who will continue researching, writing and learning about women-identified artists!

Art History 101: The Female Nude (NSFW)

Art in Island's reimagined version of Francois Boucher's Nude on a Sofa, complete with two young boys sneaking a peek at her butt to truly emphasize that

Art in Island‘s reimagined version of Francois Boucher’s Nude on a Sofa, complete with two children sneaking a peek at her butt. Photo by me.

I recently visited the interactive art museum Art In Island in Manila, where visitors are encouraged to take photographs with large murals painted on the walls. Some of these murals are inspired by famous works of art, and some are inspired by famous works of art featuring naked women. Seeing the way that these female bodies had been recontextualised, into a space where visitors were encouraged to interact with them, made me realize something: it’s time to talk about the Female Nude in art history.

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“What are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively studied in art history.

Three examples of images from the Western art history canon: the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Le Promenade by Claude Monet, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso. These paintings, artists, and movements (High Renaissance, Impressionism and Cubism, respectively) have all been extensively explored in art history.

Reader question: “What do you think are the most exciting fields in art history which haven’t been properly explored?”

Oh – this is a tough but great question!

It’s tough because there are just so many areas of art history that haven’t been properly explored. There are certain “popular” areas of art history that tend to get the most amount of attention in scholarship. These areas usually adhere to the Western art history canon.

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“How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist?”

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Manao tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch) (1892)

Reader question: “How can I love artists like Gauguin when I know so much of his work was exploitative and racist? How can we look past the artist and appreciate the art? Should we?”

That’s a great question! This is something that a lot of people struggle with. It’s sometimes hard to admit that beautiful and famous art can also be based on racist and sexist attitudes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Paul Gauguin, he was a French Post-Impressionist/Symbolist artist who famously moved to Tahiti in the late 19th century and painted the people (more specifically, the women) that he met there.

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