Female artists also find a place in books

Female artists also find a place in books

The iconoclastic character of Linda Nochlin (New York, 1931-2017) was evident as the art historian, teacher and writer was very young. He was six years old when he pierced with an awl the blue pupils of a character representing Tinkerbell, the sweet and scrawny fairy from Peter Pan, only to be delighted at the sight of those empty sockets, two black holes, that were punched out of expensive paper. He then amputated the head of Larry, a boy who was always in charge of an elementary school storybook in which he starred with another female character named Linda, like her, who was always pushed into the background. These acts of destruction were not motivated by anger but by a keen sense of injustice. The Nochlin girl could not bear this nagging portrayal of women as helpless and submissive.

The anecdote is told by the author herself in a lengthy and insightful interview that opens the pages of Women Artists. Essays by Linda Nochlin (Alianza), a book that collects essays in Spanish for the first time by a pioneer in gender studies. The most influential of all these texts, entitled “Why aren’t there great women artists?” and originally published in ARTnews magazine in 1971 (it didn’t come to Spain until 2008), argues that the answer to the transcendental question requires a rethinking of the question itself beyond the usual places of art, as well as a reflection on the obstacles that women (and not only theirs) face on the way from education to social class, through certain themes such as the ban on attending drawing sessions with nude models.

Female artists also find a place in books‘Mask’, by Camille Claudel, ca. 1884. Musee Rodin, Paris.

For Nochlin, there is another crucial question underlying the one that precedes his manifesto, and that is what it means to be a genius. She defines it as “a cultural construct”, a fantastic tale transformed into a “hagiography” by the history outlined by critics and historians, particularly from the 19th century. Feminism’s logical response, the author adds, would be to fill the biographical gap with an account of the lives of women artists. And he argues that, although on the one hand, if well thought out, “these attempts […] are certainly worthwhile and contribute to our understanding of the achievements of women and art history in general”, on the other hand “do nothing to challenge the assumptions underlying the question: ‘Why weren’t there great women artists? ?’.

In response to this question in her own essay, Nochlin herself has written dozens of texts about women artists: Cecily Brown, Ellen Altfest, Natalie Frank, and other better known ones like Berthe Morisot, Jenny Saville, and Kiki Smith. Alianza’s book comprises 30, written between 1968 and 2015. Recently, many other academics and art professionals are publishing biographies of little-known or not-known female artists, a relatively modest but discernible boom in paper books and blogs in the Internet Art House, Such a Day as Today and women in art. Recently published in Spain was the first volume of two Ellas, an ambitious dictionary of women artists coordinated by writer-curator Rosa Olivares, containing dozens of entries in chronological order from 1060 to 1900, while the second volume covers up to 1950. “There’s a lot more documentation from that date,” Olivares points out the timeline. “But imagine you were an artist in Murcia in 1820.”

With profiles of artists from all walks of life and social classes, the red thread that connects the fates of the women documented in Ellas is the intention, i.e. the interest, to be recognized as artists. “It’s impossible to bring them all together because there are many works that we don’t have documentation for or that are buried under layers of oblivion,” says Olivares, who acknowledges how Nochlin has already predicted that a project like his is destined to be is not to please all areas of feminism. In fact, Olivares relativizes the American author’s claim that historically, there have been no great female artists. “Many of those who appear in the book were recognized and famous, but when they got married they stopped painting. The disappearance of women is not because there weren’t any, but because of historians,” he argues. Along with “eminent” women such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Camille Claudel, and Claude Cahun, Ellas collects the biographies of other unknown women such as Alice Austen, “an early 19th-century lesbian artist and American designer who exhibited at MoMA, although only her husband appeared in the catalogue.”

Penitent Mary Magdalene, a work painted around 1640 by Artemisia Gentileschi, on display at the National Gallery in Oslo.Penitent Mary Magdalene, a work painted around 1640 by Artemisia Gentileschi, on display at the National Gallery in Oslo. Universal Images Group via Getty

Estrella de Diego, an art historian specializing in gender theory and postcolonial studies, disagrees with Olivares that Nochlin “wasn’t wrong at all”. That in reality there were indeed today, but “unfortunately” no great female artists in the past, no more than the few names that have come to light, and that this is precisely due to the accumulation of factors cited by Nochlin that led to his ” exclusion from the very concept of genius”. The professor and critic has just published the essay The Inadvertent Prado (Anagram), a sentimental stroll through the least conspicuous rooms of a museum housing iconic treasures. Now, as the new normal approaches, she posits that she’s been studying for four decades (for example, that the Prado has just awarded its first Gender Studies grant, and that in the UK, The Guardian newspaper has started a column on women artists) the author takes the opportunity to focus on forgotten painters, including women like Clara Peeters and most notably Rosa Bonheur, whose masterpiece El Cid was rescued from its storages by the Prado in 2019. “The problem that the Prado has is that everyone thinks they are hiding paintings they have from us. But I think if the Prado had more images of women, I would happily take them out,” explains De Diego, a regular EL PAÍS contributor. “Another thing is that the Reina Sofía does not turn off the artists. There is a problem because there is no reason. And there should be many more than there actually are.”

In order to achieve the goal of equality, the historian considers it advisable not to fall into “dualism”. That means not dedicating exhibitions and publications exclusively to women, but to “normalize” their presence after half a century of feminist struggle. “You have to take a step forward because what I don’t want is for one exclusion to give way to the other,” he admits. “What I want is that there are reconcilable opposites or that there are no opposites.” Feminist curator and cultural manager Semíramis González, who also emphasizes that defending the role of women in art, although now gaining visibility, actually dates back decades, adds that “although in the Anglo-Saxon world feminist studies have had more space , in Spain its arrival was delayed until the 1990s and commercial success only came with the generalization of feminism in 2018. This would explain the recent publications on Spanish female artists, of which González highlights the book Old Teachers, Women, Art and Ideology, by Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, originally written in 1981 and published in 2021. Pollock has just published in 2022 Differentiating the canon, an essay in which the historian uses psychoanalysis to examine the existence of distinguishing features of feminine artistic language. “After the generalization “With the introduction of feminism in exhibitions, with recent examples such as the presence of 90% of the artists at the Venice Biennale, this part of the discourse, that of the historical texts, was missing.”

1660983732 881 Female artists also find a place in books.asp“Nude with Poppies” (1916), by Vanessa Bell.IVAM

To move from the visibility or invisibility of women counted to those counted, LaMicro publishers recently rescued Virginia Woolf’s Writings on Art, a compendium of articles and essays on the visual arts written between 1920 and 1936 were written that had never before seen the light of day in Spanish. Although the Bloomsbury Group writer turned down the National Gallery in London’s suggestion that a portrait be made of her (because she thought it was a museum full of men and her likeness would not be on display), her art was as necessary as eating and sleeping . In these generally little-known texts, Woolf reflects on cinema and the relationship between the various art forms – music, sculpture and architecture, and especially word dance and colors of letters and painting – and awakens the need for artists to engage politically with his time.

Just as Estrella de Diego, Antonio Muñoz Molina and Eugenio d’Ors strolled through the Prado, shaken by a sense of the sublime, Woolf wandered enthusiastically among visitors to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. He wrote about artists like the cartoonist Edmond X. Kapp, and also about the talent of one woman: the painter Vanessa Bell (who was his sister and portrayed her in a painting in 1912). In a preface to Vanessa Bell’s 1930 Recent Paintings, Woolf anticipates (with subtle sarcasm) some of Nochlin’s ideas. “For a woman holding a painting exhibition on Bond Street […]’ he pointed out, ‘it’s not something common, nor perhaps highly recommended, because I imagine it implies studies of the naked body, and although for hundreds of years women have been admitted to be born naked until you are sixty Years ago it was said that for a woman to look at nudity through the eyes of the artist and not just the eyes of a mother, wife or lover corrupts her innocence and destroys her domesticity. Hence the extreme activity of women in philanthropy, social life, religion and all activities that require clothing.


artists. Essays by Linda NochlinLinda Nochlin. Edited by Maura Reilly. Alianza, 2022. 624 pages, 46.95 euros.

She. Dictionary of women artists up to 1900. Volume 1. Edited by Rosa Olivares. Productions of Art and Thought, 2022. 592 pages, 60 euros.

The Invisible MeadowDiego’s star. Anagrama, 2022. 304 pages, 19.90 euros.

old teachers. Women, Art and Ideology. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock. akal. 2021. 208 pages, 24 euros.

distinction of the canon. Feminist longing and the writing of art stories. Griselda Pollock. Productions of Art and Thought, 2022. 456 pages, 30 euros.

writings on art, Virginia Woolf. Translation by Olivia de Miguel. La Micro, 2022. 112 pages, 17.50 euros.

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