Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Women In Art, Forgotten and Ignored

The Wounded Deer by Frida Kahlo
Every year Camp Quest, a summer camp for secular humanist kids, puts together famous freethinkers cards to educate the campers about the many individuals who, without religion or faith, made significant contributions to history.

I was contacted by some Camp Quest organizers who were seeking examples of women artists. So far the only one they had come up with was Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist popularized in America by the film starring Salma Hayek, and known for her often surreal and autobiographical paintings. 

I ended up highly recommending they use Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, and Yoko Ono, as all three are confirmed non-theists and big names in the art world. It does somewhat sadden me that even among college educated people, only one of these three is commonly known, and she's mostly famous for being married to John Lennon. 

Portrait of Victorine Meurent by Annie Kevans
As both an artist and parent of a little girl who loves to paint, I was thrilled to hear about Annie Kevan's new exhibition: Women and the History of Art. It is a series of delicate, yet stark and emotionally charged portraits of women artists, prominent in their time but largely forgotten by history. 

Nell Frizzell of the Guardian writes: 

(Annie Kevans) has now painted more than 30 portraits of successful women who have been smudged out of the history of art for a new exhibition. Women like Victorine Meurent, who was an artist in her own right as well as one of Manet's muses, or Suzanne Valadon, who became the first female painter admitted to France's Société Nationale des Beaux Arts are among the women who are only now being singled out by later generations (Kevans's work follows the BBC's recent Story of Women and Art).

Palm Sunday, the only surviving example of
painting by Victorine Meurent.
I was surprised to learn that Victorine Meurent (the nude model in two of Manet's most famous works: The Luncheon On the Grass and Olympia) was an artist who regularly exhibited in the juried shows of the Paris Salon. Alas, when I went in search of examples of her work, I discovered that there is only one surviving work! 

There is plenty of lamentation these days about the lack of women in STEM fields, despite the fact that women are often well represented as students in STEM at the academic level. 

But these same trends exist in the field of visual arts. 

As one can tell from a stroll through any art museum, women artists in general have never been well represented. The numbers today are still rather bleak. Less than 5% of the artists featured in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, and startlingly, the numbers at the Museum of Modern Art aren't much better!  

Despite the fact that in the 1970's (and also today) women were earning more than half of all graduate degrees in studio arts (source), less than half of full time professors of art are women, and only 30% of the artists represented by professional galleries are women. (source.) Similarly, women artists are featured only about 30% of the time in reviews and articles of ARTnews and Art in America. 

Shamsia Hassani, an Afghan graffiti artist
Given all the female talent coming out of academia with BFA and MFA degrees, academic awards and solid portfolios, why the inequality in professional representation? 

It is here that the sexism inherent in American society is most evident. Evaluation of the quality and significance of works of art is a largely subjective practice. Expectations and standards evolve over time based on the ever-changing values and conditions of the society from which the artwork emerges. When only a slice of societal perspectives is represented by the dominant institutions and publications, history is bound to be skewed, and social progress stunted. 

In is alarming, for instance, that Juxtapoz, a magazine covering the underground art scene, including graffiti, street art, erotica and illustration, features very few women artists (but plenty of casually sexist imagery without critical commentary), sometimes having whole issues which include not a single woman artist. This despite the fact that there are plenty up-and-coming female illustrators, creators of erotica, and street artists out there to profile, interview, and critique. 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an American street artist

Critics, curators, dealers, and editors need to wake up to the sexist biases that influence their choices of what to write about, exhibit, and feature. They need to cultivate an awareness of the broader society and make real efforts to seek out the art (which does already exist!) that gives voice to historically marginalized groups, including not only women, but people of color, ethnic minorities, and LGBT people. 

Moreover, just like Annie Kevans, we need to remember the women artists forgotten by history; bring them back to prominence, and teach about them to our daughters who long to be artists. 

The summer of 1995, when I was a senior in high school, I spent 5 weeks in Mexico learning their language and culture. During that time I had the great privilege to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. The building (La Casa Azul) had been Kahlo's home. Many of the rooms have been kept as they were when the artist was alive. It was a hauntingly intimate experience. I felt a bit as if I'd stepped into someone's home, uninvited. 

In one room I noticed a pillow with the hand-embroidered inscription: 

No me olvides, mi amor. 

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