By Charlotte Lee
That women are unappreciated in the world of art is not exactly groundbreaking news. Western art is traditionally the domain of white, upper-classmen and the ‘great works of art’ of our past were painted by men for a male audience. Even today, when art is technically more accessible for women and other minorities (we are now trusted to look at the nude form without our lady parts exploding – the true meaning of progress) women’s art tends to be undervalued, underappreciated, and underrepresented in comparison with their male colleagues. And to rub salt in the wound, when a woman defeats the odds and is recognised as a great artist they will still, somehow always, be viewed in conjunction with their male associates rather than as individuals. The world of art cannot conceive of a female artist who exists distinctly from the men in her life. Discomfort at a woman in the public sphere without a male presence? Surely not…
Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) was one of the forerunners in the development of the British sculptural modernist movement in the 1930s. She was one of the first artists to adopt this form, inspired first by nature, and then motherhood to create sculptures with a sweeping elegance and a mammoth presence. Today she is remembered as one of Britain’s greatest sculptural innovators. She is also remembered as a contemporary and lover of Henry Moore. Their work is undeniably similar (they trained together and shaped this emerging style together) but her memory is inextricably linked to his name in a way that is not replicated on his behalf. He is remembered as a great artist. Not a great artist who worked alongside Barbara Hepworth. Yet Barbara Hepworth’s name is linked with a man who was wrongly considered her teacher (she pierced her sculptures first and was generally the more innovative of the two) and who publicly announced that they had been lovers, a claim she strongly denied. The truth of the matter pales into insignificance when one considers Moore used her sexuality to boost his public profile without her consent.
Western art is traditionally the domain of white, upper class men and the ‘great works of art’ of our past were painted by men for a male audience.
Stories such as Hepworth’s are not unusual in the art world. The French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) never escaped the shadow of her mentor Auguste Rodin – despite her genius. Some even suggest she is responsible for aspects of his pieces, aspects she was never credited for, never mind that he signed many of her pieces with his own name. For a long time the Mexican-British painter Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) was remembered as a muse for the Surrealists, despite being one of the most talented artists in her own right, and even today she is not remembered without reference to Max Ernst. The Cuban artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) was allegedly killed by her abusive husband, Carl Andre, and she will never be able to disassociate his name from hers, yet a retrospective exhibition of his work in 2017 made no reference to her. And to invert (while confirming) the trend, Japanese painter Yayoi Kusama (1929-present) is forgotten where she should be remembered as Andy Warhol copied many features of her work. The trend is extensive and exhausting. Time after time the treatment of female artists extends beyond the contextualising of them. Their male associates become not just their colleagues, but also a part of their artistic identity. And as Andy Warhol’s reputation proves – this is not reciprocated.
The world of art is a better place for women than it was thirty years ago, and attitudes are shifting – female artists are celebrated more for their work now than ever before. So why does this world fear the power of an artistically independent and distinct woman? Why do we feel the need to temper the power and influence of women? Why on earth would we want to dilute the necessary diversity that women bring to art?
It is for the same reason we need the expression ‘white feminism’ and why people think the ‘A’ in LGBTQIA stands for ally. Even when we push for change, even when we are ‘woke’, and especially when we want to do better it is all too easy to fall back into old ways, to rely on the hierarchical power structures that we are accustomed to. And so we think that because we are celebrating women in art we don’t need to think about the terms we are using to do that. Or because we are pushing for pay equality we can focus on the further discrepancies in the wages of women of colour ‘later’. Just as art reflects society, so too does the language we use to talk about it. So when we talk about women artists in terms of the men in their lives we are reflecting a society that tells women that their identity is tied to the men in their lives. And not only are we reflecting it, we are feeding back into it. The only way to subvert this is to consider what power structures our language feeds into. To diversify our art. And most of all, to watch women produce great art without chaperones, without homogeny, and without limitations. Then talk about their art in those terms.