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Feminine/Feminist Art - Not a problem

I mentioned in last week's blog post that the Guerrilla Girls mentioned feminist art as if it were a bad thing. Feminist art is outspoken and points out what is missing in the art world. They protest, show statistics, show the problems women face on a daily basis, they dare decry the lack of support from the institutions and the gatekeepers of the institutions that keep women artists vastly outnumbered by (men) artists.

Feminine art, on the other hand is considered gentle, delicate, pretty, it is everything a man would not paint. It's yet another label that is put on a female artist to keep her quiet. Whichever label they place on a woman, is generally to keep her mouth shut, keep her small and keep her down, with low self-esteem so that she doesn't try harder and doesn't leave her assigned place. Don't rise above your station which was determined by us, the Patriarchy. Take Mary Beard's Women & Power: A Manifesto in the piece The Public Voice of Women, she discusses the silencing of women in oratory, but this could, by extension, be applied to the arts too. If you are not represented by a Gallery, or featured in well read Art Magazines, do you even exist? Will you ever be remembered? Representation matters and it's something women have been writing about in the 1960s-70s-80s... You would think that in 60 years things would have changed! On the other hand, shouldn't feminine be art simply be part of feminist art? All art created by women is to show that yes, women are creative, but they want to depict other things that are not necessarily of male interest. To be part of the club, some women emulated masculine art, their themes, their style, they also learnt from male artists, so it is also that certain themes and styles were ingrained into the way women painted and thought of accepted themes and styles. To fit in, paint like a man. Shulamith Firestone wrote in 1970 an article entitled "(Male) Culture" where she pointed out that during the Impressionist movement, artists such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, although they painted traditionally female subject matters such as women, children, female nudes, interiors, they still were focusing on what men at the time were painting. In Firestone's own words:

These women, for all their superb draughtsmanship and composition skills, remained minor painters because they had 'lifted' a set of traditions and a view of the world that was inauthentic for them. They worked within the limits of what had been defined as female by a male tradition; they saw women through male eyes, painted a male's idea of female.¹

Simone de Bouvoir wrote that:

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.

So to some extent, we can say that not only do men confuse it with the absolute truth, so do some, if not, many women. So we have, for instance, Artemisia Gentileschi painting Judith Beheading Holofornes with a feminist twist where Judith is doing it unafraid and really going for it, while Caravaggio's piece, which came first, we have a squeamish Judith - a male perspective of how a woman would deal with a beheading because she is a delicate flower. Artemisia's painting, for approximately 215 years remained unknown until it emerged in 1827, and was thought to have been a Caravaggio. It wasn't until recently that Artemisia became a sensation and has now several books dedicated to her and she has at present an exhibition in London's National Gallery Nothing like being dead for hundreds of years to become celebrated.

There are also two other artists who come to mind that were very successful during their time, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) and Elisabetta Siranni (1638-1665), thanks to the forward thinking culture of Bologna which provided a nurturing environment for female artists. But it is also possible to see that they followed the styles and traditions of the time painting very much similar themes to those of male artists. Especially when it came to painting for the churches. Regarding commissions, portraiture was also in line with the styles of the time and female nudes didn't differ much from those that had been painted by men. Firestone's assessment of female art carrying the traditions of the male gaze, unfortunately, seems spot on.

At what point did women start to break with male tradition? At what point did they realise that the male gaze objectified women? That themes that depicted violence against women were not acceptable and that women should make art that not only appealed to the male audience, but also the female audience. Have they always been around, but kept away from history books because theirs was a feminine hobby, not for sale, enmeshed in female traditions? There has always been embroidery, pottery, quilting, knitting, crochet, but none of those were, or are, considered fine art. Artemisia Gentileschi definitely added that feminist twist to her angry Judith, probably seeing in her mind's eye the man who raped her as a teenager. So to some extent, women have always been trying to break free, but were usually stifled, or ignored.

Although there were a few well known female painters during the Renaissance, most were either nuns, or children of painters. In my article about whether women had also been commissioned by churches, note how most were either nuns or children of painters with family helping them pave their career. It is only around the end of the 19th century, that routes for women to becoming professional artists became more open. The opening of public state-sponsored education for women being by far, the most important one as women could now learn alongside men and benefit from almost the same artistic training. I say almost because they didn't all allow women to paint nudes from live models. Although the first woman to attend the Royal Academy Schools in London was Laura Herford in 1860, and only because she had signed her application drawings as L.H. By 1870, another 34 women had been admitted and in 1878, 35 women signed a petition asking to participate equally in all classes men could attend, namely, life drawing. They were even modest enough to say they were accepting of the figure being semi-draped. It was rejected then and also rejected in the early 1880s. By 1883, the petition had garnered further attention and had gathered 90 signatures of which 64 were from female students and 26 supporters. But it was only in 1893 that the School finally allowed women to study the life figure, but it had to be partially draped.²

The last of the state-sponsored schools to accept women in their ranks was the French École des Beaux-Arts, after Sweden, England, Denmark, Germany and Russia. England was also at the forefront of promoting women artists when it funded, in 1855, The Society of Female Artists - which is now known as The Society of Women Artists. It offered women the opportunity to both exhibit and sell their works of art.

French artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) is said to to have painted more natural portraits of aristocratic women than her contemporary male painters; Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) was widely recognized as the pioneer of abstract art with her compositions having been completed years before Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. Unfortunately, it wasn't until 2018 that af Klint became recognised as such when the Guggenheim surveyed her body of work.

"Music, Pink and Blue" by Georgia O'Keefe (1918)
"Music, Pink and Blue" by Georgia O'Keefe (1918)

Georgia O'Keefe (1887-1986) was the first American to produce a purely abstract work of art, which until then, was dominated by the American Realism movement. O'Keefe is well known for her close up floral paintings and with Music, Pink and Blue (1918), the artist explored musical movement and colours which she said were partially inspired by Kandinsky's theories that "music could be translated into something for the eyes".

Augusta Savage (1892-1962), when faced with rejection by the French government to participate in a sponsored summer art program because of her race, was an activist advocating for equal rights within the art world for African-Americans.

"Gamin" by August Savage (1929) Harlem boy
"Gamin" by August Savage (1929)

She was an incredible sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance and in 1929, her sculpture of a child from Harlem Gamin got her a scholarship to study at Academie de la Grande Chaumiere located in Paris. In 1934, she became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.³

The next artist I would like to mention is the Mexican Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Her paintings are worldwide known as mostly self-portraits and her identity as an artist who never stopped painting even when confined to a bed. There are paintings of her in bed with an easel adapted to her bed frame. Her paintings were original, different from anything during that time and explored the feminine and the feminist in her.

Elain Sturtevant (1924-2014) was an American artist who not only questioned her place in the hierarchy of gender, but went further to question authenticity, authorship, and originality, within the structure of the art world. She would take artwork that was eerily similar to Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, replicate and reconstruct it. One, even with the blessing of Andy Warhol - his famous print of Marilyn Monroe for which he provided Sturtevant with the original screen maker to use for her artwork. Warhol didn't stand in her way, he even assisted her, when she wanted to replicate his other artworks because he understood that she was doing something that was not dissimilar to his replication of the Campbell Soup labels. Not all American artists took her ideas of replication as well as Warhol, so while she became popular in Europe, where they seemed to understand what her concept was about, she wasn't as well received in her own home country. She wanted to use the "silent power" of art to "trigger thinking", to question what lay beyond the surface of a work of art. What was the similar, but also what was different.

This is but a short list of women who broke from tradition and started to paint what they felt like paint, in the style they chose, and even though they were learning techniques that were originally provident from the male art world, they were infusing their works of art with their own ideas and feelings. Some would probably have called them feminine or feminist, but like Georgia O'Keefe once said when she refused to lend one of her paintings for the Women Artists: 1550-1950 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, that she didn't want to be known as a great woman artist, she wanted to be know as a great artist. One of her best known quotes is:

The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I'm one of the best painters.

And I believe that is what most women artists want. Now that they have been given the opportunity to explore their on inner and outer world, answering their own questions, we want to be better represented. We want a 50/50 balance in representation in museums, galleries, art shows, art fairs that we no longer have to go around counting how many women are being represented in the art world, or having the art categorised as feminine/feminist in a derogatory manner. That the prices be en par with each other and that it is no longer such a boys club. We want fair treatment and not to be harassed by male gallery owners who ask for special favours to represent you, or sexual harassment in general (see here, here and here, or Google). Of course, there are also many many other problems with the art world (auctions where art is sold for millions, anyone? Corruption?), but that is another topic, for another day.

Recommended Reading

Spence, Rachel. "Gentileschi and the resurgence of early female artists", Financial Times, March 27th, 2020

Myers, Nicole. Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France, September 2008

Obrist, Hans Ulrich. "Elaine Sturtevant obituary". The Guardian. May 19th, 2014


¹Robinson, Hilary, Feminism Art History: An Anthology 1968-2014, second edition, Wiley Blackwell 2015

² “Striving after excellence”: Victorian women and the fight for arts training.

³ Marsh, Ariana, "The 20 Female Artists You Need to Know". Harpers Bazaar. May 30th, 2020


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