WHERE ARE OUR FEMALE ARTISTS?

 For centuries female artists have fought to flourish. Restricted by society, the art world elite, female artists have long been viewed as a secondary type of artist. How wrong society was. What great works have so often been side-lined, a wave of rebellious young artists have finally, after hundreds of years passionate work, initiated a greater equality in art for the many not the few.

‘Ah, they shall hear of me someday.’


Furnishing the Vasari Corridor, ahead of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, named after Giorgio Vasari -  a sixteenth century Italian painter, architect, writer and historian - one finds ‘the greatest collection of self-portraits in the world.’ Dating from the early 1500’s, a kilometre long, the one main corridor charts the entire western world’s art history. It is ‘a pantheon of Masters’ and home to seventeen hundred self-portraits of which, with alarming starkness, only 7% of them being by women.
In 1989, so statistically backdated, the feminist Guerrilla Girls found that in the world renowned  Metropolitan Museum in New York a mere 5% of the artworks were by female artists whilst a staggering 85% of aforementioned artworks were of female nudes by male artists. Women were viewed as models and muses although lacking in artistic display, they were historically ‘Starved of art education, forbidden to even gaze on the naked form.’

Recently appointed Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary University in London UK, Amanda Vickery, arguably a Twenty First Century version of Giorgio one might write, so I shall, is a much reputed historian, broadcaster and author. It is this final cap Amanda wears that brings this writer to a sense of some mild surprise. In Amanda’s recent Guardian digital newspaper article, Bring Female Artists out of Storage , Amanda argues that for a female author there are far less obstacles to becoming published, conversely citing ‘Art demanded complex training, public production and was enmeshed in a well-guarded infrastructure…’ Although she references the sixteenth century it is with this assertion in the most faithful traditions of literature I enter into dialogue with Amanda. Art is art, by definition ‘the expression of creative skill in a visual form…’ The skill and dexterity of an author is not a ‘fly-by-night’ affair. It is precisely the structure of attributes Amanda associates with her ‘art.’ In order that a writer may be privileged to become published, breathe life into the words on a page, requires, with minimal exceptions, years of dedicated learning, crafting their passions to the enth degree. I think of George Elliot aka Mary Anne Evans, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett respectively as Masters of the English language. Indeed it is a continuous and neverending learning process. And so it should be. Public production for a writer comes in the main by becoming published or seeing their words performed, and indeed, like with Amanda’s ‘assertions, a well-guarded infrastructure. The famous ‘Literary Cannon.’ One may think instantly of aforementioned authors whilst also thinking of names like Shakespeare, L. Frank Baum and Nathaniel Hawthorn. My argument lies in that each discipline of art has its own cannon, each country in our globe has its own cannons, and the statement Amanda makes in reference to paintings, crafts and sculpture is also equally applicable to art created through words. 

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"Female artists have long been viewed as a secondary type of artist. How wrong society was."

A traditionally ‘male’ art, that of war art, with all the blood and guts stereotypically associated with men, a ‘good old punch up,’ was embraced by the first female artist to tackle and be publicly produced. Her name was Elizabeth Thomson, latterly Lady Butler. Born in 1856 Elizabeth was a modernist who, like her predecessors, was intent on instigating a change in the art establishment for equality for female artists. Schooled at the Female School of Design, Elizabeth’s ‘talent and tenacity overcame almost insuperable obstacles, ‘capturing war art with an intuitive eye for human suffering, the ordinary soldiers and the costs of war, exposing the painful truth of human emotion. Not the blood and guts men so often relished their works with, but with a caring depiction of the man behind the soldier. The Role Call, or to give it its full title ‘Calling The Role after and Engagement in Crimea,’ Elizabeth captures the rawness of war with little reference to the blood and guts, so much so, the late Queen Victoria brought the picture which now hangs in St James’ Palace.  Dear Old Vic supporting her fellow women.

Vickery states of female artists previous and continuing barriers to creative freedoms and sidelined public displays:

‘It is not my purpose to suggest that we have yet to discover a female Michelangelo but it is misleading to look at the past through the eyes of men alone. What women saw was different. Let's remember that.’

Perhaps then, in this modern age of freedoms and equalities, previously only dreamed of, it is worth a moment of reflection upon one final artist amongst such a plethora of talents.

Berthe Morisot painted unconventional art in a conventional setting. She painted the world through her own female perspective. Balancing motherhood and domesticity with her creative self Berthe broke the historical shackles placed upon female artists by creating the world’s highestselling work by a female artist, her delicate female nude. Sold in a Christie’s auction in February 2014 for £7,000,000, although still massively under value of her male counterparts, Monet selling at £20,000,000, the crucial fact in this transformation from subject to teacher of female artists, is Berthe is now posthumously leading the art establishment to turn focus more equally to the much wondrous splendours created and, dare one write, informing and altering the way in which the world is viewed. Indeed the way the male world views women. Not just within the art world but by progression in unity with other social and cultural advancements, harmonising a collective assembly of historically underrepresented female artists to flourish.

‘When asked what it took to become a female artist, O’Keefe answered, nerve’
 

 

 
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