Women artists’ history

This video from the USA is called Introducing The Fund for Women Artists.

By Len Phelan in England:

The Rise Of Women Artists

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Wednesday 24 February 2010

For many art historians, the story of European art is a seamless transition from one great male era to the next in which subject matter, theme and composition met the demands of noble, religious or commercial patronage.

Women, if foregrounded at all in painting and sculpture, were variously objectified as domestic goddess, maternal icon or sexual temptress.

And it remains the case today of course that the “art market” is largely a male preserve and women still hit the glass ceiling when it comes to getting their work funded and promoted.

But this exhibition at the Walker, though modest in scale, arrestingly fulfils its aims to champion the previously unsung cause of women as producers of art by drawing on its extensive reserves of paintings, works on paper, textiles, ceramics and sculpture.

These date from the 16th century to the contemporary period and are chronologically displayed in nine sections which challenge perceptions that women’s engagement as producers of art is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The works on show date from the 16th and 17th century to the present with Italian painters Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani and the 18th century French painter Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun given due prominence.

And drawing on the Walker’s massive collection of 19th century painting there are some astutely selected canvases by Margaret Bernardine Hall, Louisa Starr and Henrietta Ward which demonstrate a level of technique equalling and in some instances surpassing their male contemporaries.

The Pre-Raphaelites were the first to encourage women to acquire a systematic training and introduced them to patrons and the work of a doyenne of the school Emma Sandys is rightly given pride of place.

But it’s salutary to be reminded by the excellent explicatory panels that women were not admitted to the Royal Academy art schools until 1860, were taught separately from men and not allowed to draw from life for a further 30 years.

They were encouraged to develop domestic themes in their work and, perhaps inevitably, a fair proportion of the works on display reflect this pre-occupation, dating as far back to the Renaissance in Maria Spartali Stillman‘s Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni.

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni, by Maria Spartali Stillman

Thus women have always had to struggle to gain acceptance in a male-dominated art world even though one of the painters on show, Angelica Kauffman, was the first female artist to challenge the male domination of history painting and was a founder of the Royal Academy.

Something of a sea change emerged in the 1950s and in particular since the rise of the feminist movement a gradual shift has taken place in which women have begun to assert their artistic worth and their preoccupations.

Along with acclaimed local artists Rabindra Singh and Emma Rodgers, the last section of the exhibition highlights contemporary social concerns such as the spread of Aids in Helen Chadwick‘s Viral Landscape No 2, in which parts of her own anatomy are disturbingly represented.

Paula Rego on abortion

And Paula Rego‘s stark and angry response to the consequences of back-street abortion is yet another memorable painterly polemic on a woman’s right to choose from this outstanding artist.

The exhibition also poses the question whether the so-called decorative arts traditionally associated with women such as needlework and ceramics are any less significant than the “fine” arts. A vibrant Cretan embroidered curtain of flowers and birds, the Modernist tea-sets of Susie Cooper and Clarice Cliff and great stoneware pottery by Norah Braden and Margot Rey would seem to strengthen the argument that they can provoke an equally profound aesthetic response.

Apart from striking canvases such as Prunella Clough‘s Man With A Blowlamp, which celebrates the dignity of labour in a witty assembly of geometric shapes and planes, the male figure is pretty well absent from view.

For this viewer at least that was quite a revelatory experience and as an exercise in viewing the world through another gender’s prism it is one I strongly recommend.

And the entirety of this excellent exhibition ought to inspire other galleries to dust off the women’s art treasures buried away in their collections.

Well done, the Walker!

Exhibition runs until March 14. Admission is free.

How Strong Is Feminist Art Today? A Q&A With Subversive Pinup Artist Margaret Harrison: here.

5 thoughts on “Women artists’ history

  1. This exhibition has now been extended to 1 August 2010.

    David Lawson
    Digital Communications Officer, National Museums Liverpool


  2. Pingback: Women, art, and money | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Early twentieth century women artists | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: United States artist Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition in Canada | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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