A New Survey Erases Male Artists From the Western Canon


“Men put me down as the best woman painter,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. “I think I’m one of the best painters.” That famous quote by the American modernist serves as an epigraph in Part 2 of the Guardian columnist Katy Hessel’s sweeping first book, “The Story of Art Without Men.” “Women artists are not a trend,” Hessel maintains; and yet the contested category persists, not as a meaningful distinction but rather as a repercussion of patriarchy, a category that the male-dominated art world consistently, in O’Keeffe’s terms, diminishes.

Part revisionist history, part coffee-table book, part collective portrait, part archival treasure hunt, Hessel’s treatise covers the 1500s to the present in an attempt to make good on its title. But despite her best efforts, men can’t help appearing throughout, as rich husbands, abusive boyfriends, artist fathers, needy sons, muse-hungry painters, institutions and even that supreme male gaze, God’s.

In this 500-page tome, Hessel, who cites her Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists as part of the book’s origin, efficiently introduces us to a mosaic of artists, from the well-known Artemisia Gentileschi, Frida Kahlo, Hilma af Klint, Tracey Emin and Kara Walker to the lesser-known Elisabetta Sirani, Marie Denise Villers and Lady Butler, and even gestures toward the multitude of names that we might never know.

The book’s chronological and compendium-like structure allows for an abundance of “firsts”: Lavinia Fontana is “thought to be one of the first women in Western art to paint female nudes,” in 1595; Alma Thomas is “the first African American woman to achieve a solo exhibition at the Whitney,” in 1972; “A Lesbian Show” was “the first all-lesbian art show in the U.S.,” in New York City in 1978; the 20th-century Mexican artist Aurora Reyes Flores is considered “the first female Muralist”; and so on. The result is an engaging but necessarily clipped perspective. Through her narrative form and focus on representation, Hessel’s lineage of milestones obscures both the political history behind women’s exclusion from the canon and the possibility of struggle against it.

Hessel’s target audience is “anyone of any art-historical level interested in learning the stories of these mostly overshadowed artists.” It is unsurprising, then, that her survey — which includes roughly 300 images, a glossary of art-historical terminology and a six-page timeline of artists from the Dutch Golden Age to the Harlem Renaissance to today — favors the global over the local.

From the beginning Hessel warns that “this is not a definitive history — it would be an impossible task,” and acknowledges the challenges of her broad-stroked approach: the complications of fitting individuals into sanctioned aesthetic movements; the sensitivities around the vexed category of “woman artists,” which for Hessel is no longer a “derogatory” term but “an embodiment of power”; and the ever-evolving status of these distinctions in our present and future.

But although her index of names succeeds in providing some answer to the question posed in Linda Nochlin’s trailblazing 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” Hessel does less than Nochlin did, 50 years ago, to unsettle the terms of the question itself. Can inserting women into the art-historical canon interrupt the system of canonization itself? Why does Hessel rely on the same methods of archival organization — linear history, market-based tastes, distinct genre boundaries — that played a part in producing women’s very exclusion? How instead might the fact of women’s presence disrupt the presuppositions of art’s place in the world?

An especially moving chapter, “The Body in Sculpture,” initiates an answer. Here Hessel examines the midcentury sculpture of Eva Hesse, itself “difficult to describe,” and the performance art of Yoko Ono (“a genre defined by risk-taking”), and their engagements with the body’s virtues and grotesqueness, providing context for second-wave feminism’s focus on sexual violence and reproductive politics.

“How, through the power of art,” Hessel asks, “can you make people feel the visceral sensation of a body that has been hurt or scrutinized, idealized, or wrought with scars of barely comprehensible histories?”

Hessel also underscores how many of the artists in “The Story of Art Without Men” have been denied access to education, funding, gallery representation, media attention, attribution and even participation in public life. They have died poor, depressed, institutionalized or simply unknown. No book could repair those wrongs — but especially not one that remains concerned with indexing and inclusivity, rather than with a broader and more fervent social critique.

Tiana Reid is an assistant professor of English at York University. Her writing has appeared in The Times, Bookforum, Art in America and other publications.

THE STORY OF ART WITHOUT MEN | By Katy Hessel | Illustrated | 459 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $45

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