01 July 2009

The obstacle race

It's with very great pleasure that I see Ray Girvan at JSBlog highlighting the blatant marginalisation of women in western art history. Writing this on the wing, I have neither the reliability nor the bandwidth to follow his link immediately but will do so later when opportunity permits.

When I recently muttered about the “great man theory” of history popping up everywhere, including popular music, I received several emails gently suggesting that such and such person had been a turning point. Putting aside the distinctions between being, or marking, or representing a historical point of inflexion, I think some of these correspondents felt that I was devaluing the influence which an iconic individual had upon them. Nothing could be further from my intent. I cannot agree that Janis Joplin (for example) or Joan Armatrading (to take another) changed the course of music; but both of them certainly influenced me greatly, becoming the vector through which the spirit of the time acted upon me, and my life would be different today if I had not heard each at a particular place and time.

As I've mentioned before, an early siren calling me into the arts was Elisabeth Louise Vigée-le-Brun. In exactly the same way, I would never say that she changed the world: but she is a hero to me, and her Countess Golovin wrought a crucial change in my life. I chanced across her in the early nineteen sixties, then never encountered any other women on the painter's side of the canvas in any of my subsequent art history education. My (now ex) wife (a passionate painter, sculptor, historian and feminist) a decade and a half later, prompted me tothink about this ... why is the work of Sofonisba Anguissola, Paula Modersöhn-Becker, Rosa Bonheur, Suzanne Valadon, Käthe Kollwitz, Gwen John, Artemisia Gentileschi ("the magnificent exception" of Germaine Greer's The obstacle race , a few years later), Kay Sage, Natalya Goronchova, Mary Beale, Françoise Duparc, Mary Cassatt, never covered in conventional western art history...?

As Ray says, the restitution is still only partial. Many of those women artists are head and shoulders above the male contemporaries who have eclipsed them. That Gentileschi's astonishing work should for centuries have been attributed to her pedestrian father Orazio is laughable. I recently won an easy bet because an art historian I know (and, in general, deeply respect) refused to believe that a Judith slaying Holofernes was by Gentileschi and not Caravaggio (teaching and received wisdom are very effective blinkers; once persuaded, he willingly agreed that Gentilieschi's rendition was infinitely more powerful than Caravaggo's, and he didn't know why he'd never seen that they couldn't be from the same hand). Women artists are still not represented in art school or university art history curricula in anything like proportion to their number. Few people, watching Night at the museum 2 or visiting the US Capitol Rotunda, when asked to guess who produced the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln (the work of a teenaged Vinnie Ream Hoxie) come up with s female name.

  • Germaine Greer, The obstacle race : the fortunes of women painters and their work. 1979, London: Secker and Warburg. 043618799X

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