Read an excerpt from Katy Hessel’s illuminating celebration of female artists
Written by Katy Hessel
Beginning in 1500 and taking readers right up to artists born in the 1990s, historian Katy Hessel’s The Story Of Art Without Men is an illuminating celebration of female artists and their often overlooked place in history. Read an excerpt below.
When listing the artists who are typically said to ‘define’ the art-historical canon, it is the following names that most often come up: Giotto, Botticelli, Titian, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, David, Delacroix, Manet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Pollock, Freud, Hockney, Hirst.
I am sure that many of you will have heard of them. But how many of these artists would you recognise: Anguissola, Fontana, Sirani, Peeters, Gentileschi, Kauffman, Powers, Lewis, Macdonald Mackintosh, Valadon, Höch, Asawa, Krasner, Mendieta, Pindell, Himid? If I hadn’t actively studied women artists for the past seven years, I doubt I would know more than a fraction of these names.
Should any of this be surprising? Not according to statistics. A study published in 2019 found that in the collections of eighteen major US art museums, 87 percent of artworks were by men, and 85 per cent by white artists. Currently, women artists make up just 1 per cent of London’s National Gallery collection. This same museum only staged their first ever major solo exhibition by a historic female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi, in 2020. And 2023 will mark the first time the Royal Academy of Arts in London has ever hosted a solo exhibition by a woman in their main space (Marina Abramovic). Just one woman of colour has individually won the Turner Prize (Lubaina Himid), in 2017, and it took until 2022 for the first women of colour to represent the US (Simone Leigh) and the UK (Sonia Boyce) at the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious art event in the world. When I conducted a YouGov survey in early 2022 to find out the British public’s knowledge of women artists, results showed that 30% could name no more than three (83% of 18–24-year-olds could name not even three), and more than half said they’d never been taught about women artists at school.
The night of the art fair I couldn’t sleep. Frustrated and angry about what I’d just witnessed, I typed the words ‘women artists’ into Instagram. Nothing appeared. And so, @thegreatwomenartists (a name that pays homage to Nochlin) was born. I set myself the task of writing daily posts spotlighting artists ranging from young graduates to Old Masters working across every medium, from painting to sculpture, photography to textiles. Adopting an accessible style, my aim was then, as it is now, to appeal to anyone of any art-historical level interested in learning the stories of these mostly overshadowed artists, just as I have done, on a more expansive scale, in a podcast of the same name which launched in 2019. I do this to break down the stigma around elitism in art – art can be for anyone, and anyone can be part of this conversation – and to showcase artists so often excluded from the history books and courses I studied. It’s not that I believe there to be anything inherently ‘different’ about work created by artists of any particular gender – it’s more that society and its gatekeepers have always prioritised one group in history. And I think it is vital for this to be addressed and challenged. Nearly seven years later, the result is this book: The Story of Art without Men.
The Story of Art without Men by Katy Hessel (Hutchinson Heinemann; £30) is out now.
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