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Women Artists

Two books look at women in the art world and conclude from entirely different approaches that, even after thirty years, the struggle remains the same

"Women and art: Contested territory" and "Great women collectors"

The American artist Judy Chicago is still dogged by an experience which partly prompted her famous feminist set-piece, “The dinner party”. In the early 1960s, as a young woman in search of herself, she attended a course in the “Intellectual history of Europe”. At the opening session the professor promised that he would discuss women’s contributions. “I waited eagerly all semester,” she recalls in Women and art, “only to have him stride into the final session and state curtly, ‘Women’s contributions—they made none’”.

The feelings of angry resentment roused against such attitudes drove women into battle in the 1970s and 80s. They were determined to write themselves back into a history of white, male-dominated geniuses, and to do so as artists in their own right, minus the discriminating tag, “women”. Yet two recent books supporting the cause continue to define themselves by the “women” in their titles: Women and art: contested territory by Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie-Smith and Great women collectors by Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey.

After more than a quarter of a century of research and debate, the resurrection and reinstatement of hundreds of women artists, and the recognition of women’s issues as a validated area of academic study, do we still need to ask the question “Why are there no great women, let alone answer it with another collection of significant names?” Clearly we do. Both these books repeat feminist arguments raised time and again that women’s achievements are either “erased” from history or simply not given their due by society and, most glaringly, the art world.

“Do we have to keep ‘re-inventing the wheel’?” asks Ms Chicago more than once in Women and art. Why, she queries, if there really are so many good women artists whose art is so important, don’t we know and see more of it? Despite the many changes that have been won for women, “the most significant change still eludes us—the permanent institutionalisation of women’s place in art history,” Ms Chicago writes. She pleads for women to be allowed to express themselves freely, and to have feminine experience acknowledged in “its relationship to male art practice”. Women are represented by just 5% of all museum holdings in America, she maintains. The battle is clearly still on and the reader comes away from both these books with an impression of how much and, paradoxically, how little ground has been gained in the struggle.

Refreshingly, the authors tackle the male-dominated story on new ground. Ms Chicago and Mr Lucie-Smith stress that theirs is not another book about women artists, but about that most sensitive and “contested territory”, depictions of women. Their aim is to present the many images by women of themselves on equal terms with examples “produced by men with no knowledge of the female experience”. Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey highlight the notable contribution made by thirty “great” women patrons to the history of art. Surprisingly, this is the first book on the subject.

The strength of Women and art is the provocative selection and layout of its excellent illustrations, and the book can profitably be read through its pictures. Arranged thematically, the chapters deal with iconic images of woman as goddess, hero, mother, worker, seducer, abused person, and woman as mere body, as opposed to mind. In the final part, women explore their own identity in witty, as well as outspokenly shocking, ways. Some of the images will satisfy the curious, but may not be suitable for children. As co-authors Edward Lucie-Smith and Judy Chicago present an unlikely partnership. Mr Lucie-Smith thought it incorrect as a lone male to strike out on his own on such dangerous territory, but asserts his right to have a view on a subject now guarded defensively by women. The result is a fascinating and entirely friendly “dialogue” with his feminist collaborator. While he weaves a lucid and accessible narrative around the reproductions, she responds to his male, art-historical opinion in signed statements down the margins.

Supported by her feminist agenda and personal anecdote, Ms Chicago occasionally challenges his findings. We learn that she hates Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, finds Botticelli’s “The birth of Venus” too passive, and disapproves of “negative” images of women in general.

Women lounging naked on sofas, even if done by artist of the same sex, are not on. She is deeply troubled by scenes of rape, however beautifully painted. Can depictions of violence against women, by Rubens or Picasso, for example, really be considered “great art”, she asks. Well, he retorts, what are we to do? Should masterpieces be removed from the walls, and reproductions ripped from the history books? At what point should the right to expression be silenced as obscene or pornographic. With reference to male images of pubescent girls, she writes: “The dictionary definition of paedophilia is ‘sexual desire in an adult for a child’, and I always thought that it constituted a crime. But, apparently, this does not apply to art—or to artists.”

This is a book of questions and opinions, but not necessarily answers, and the reader will find him- or herself wanting to join the debate. Do women who idolise the late Diana, Princess of Wales, really object to Botticelli’s representations of beautiful women? Are men incapable of capturing the female experience? Surely Edward Kienholz’s memorable assemblage, “Illegal operation”, made as early as 1962, is as powerfully sympathetic a comment on abortion as Paula Rego’s recent triptych about the same issue. Neither of these works is illustrated, and it is a pity that this stimulating book does not guide us to further reading.

In Great women collectors Mrs Gere and Lady Vaizey highlight not the many, but the very few, acknowledging how rarely women have collected on any significant scale. They draw together a wealth of scholarly information about thirty women, from Catherine the Great to, in our own times, Gabrielle Keiller and Dominique de Menil, both of whom died in recent years. Significantly, in view of Ms Chicago’s charge, none of the collectors listed was a notable promoter of women artists. And the portraits, by which they were memorably recorded for posterity, were mostly by men: Madame de Pompadour by Boucher, the Empress Joséphine by Prud’hon, Isabella Stewart Gardner by Sargent, Gertrude Stein by Picasso, Coco Chanel by Cecil Beaton.

“Are women collectors fewer, but different?” the authors ask in their introduction. To start with they clear away a few misconceived differences identified as “women’s” taste—china, embroidery, dress and fans—which, they suggest, may have obscured a real and important participation in this field. The range and variety of women’s interests was, in fact, tremendous, from Catherine’s purchase of Wedgwood’s 944-piece “Frog” service, to an exquisite, inlaid mahogany jewel case, trimmed with ormolu, made by the cabinet-maker William Vile for Queen Charlotte, a Roman cameo-glass vase acquired by the Duchess of Portland, and Canova’s “Three Graces” commissioned by the Empress Joséphine. But more remarkable than the collection of such grandees was the purchase of Rodin’s controversial sculpture, “The kiss”, by two spinster sisters, the Misses Davies, and of a masterpiece of avant-garde art, Marcel Duchamp’s “Large glass” by the American Katherine Dreier.

Regrettably, only a handful of the works are illustrated. We must rely entirely on the narrative skills of the writers to bring the collections of these extraordinary women to life. But it is to the women themselves that the books is really dedicated, and it is their portraits and personalities that spring out of the pages: Gertrude Stein and her studio, part writer’s study, part gallery of living modern masters; Peggy Guggenheim, flaunting sun-glasses, fluffy dogs, Légers and Jackson Pollocks; sturdy Katherine Dreier presiding over the 600 works she presented to Yale University Art Gallery; Helena Rubinstein, in evening dress, decked with jewels, leaning against a rococo console table in a room stuffed with objects, exemplifying her own words, “Quality’s nice; quantity makes a show”! I have particular admiration for “The ladies”, three Americans, indispensable, committed, back-room organisers behind the creation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

What unites these women, whether maverick figures like Catherine the Great, queens or empresses, French royal mistresses, business women, or mere wives, is independence and money. The scarcity of British women with millionaire spending power is all too evident.

Why do they do it? To fill the vacant hours if you’re a French royal mistress, but madame du Barry nearly put her second career as a patron in jeopardy when she turned away work by Fragonard in favour of the feeble Joseph-Marie Vien. To give structure and meaning to life if you’re a spinster, or a wealthy wife. They are not in it to enhance their reputations, but because they believe passionately in “the power and importance of art”. Their involvement with the artists they patronise, their commitment to new art, their proselytising zeal, and their bequests to public institutions means that women have exercised a considerable force for good in the art world. What really characterises women collectors and sets them apart i their altruism, the authors maintain. And they should know. Lady Vaizey is an adventurous patron, particularly of craftsmen and -women, and Mrs Gere assembled, together with her late husband, a superb collection of landscape sketches, the subject of an exhibition last year in the National Gallery in London, “A brush with nature”.

Although a tradition of women’s achievement is now well researched and established, the authors remind us of continuing social and professional prejudice. Yet the drive behind these two publications is less a sense of neglect than a growing appetite for yet more information about woman as attainer and role model. Both books are essentially celebratory. They cater for the need to keep the cause in the public eye, to give reassurance and to boost female morale.

Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie-Smith, Women and art: contested territory (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1999), 192 pp, 220 col. ills, £25 (hb) ISBN 0297825453

Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey, Great women collectors (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1999), 192 pp, 60 b/w ills, 16 col. ills, $35 (hb) ISBN 0810963930

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The more it changes the more it’s necessary to change'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 100 February 2000