The history of art: A male horror vacui

15 Mins read

Toyota Cressidas bolt through streets today stormed by gentrification and brought back to us as they were, in flashes of lost atmospheres, only by film made of foggy colours scratched by a gritty filigree filter.

They leave behind bursts of smoke mixed with recklessness, a hint of punk and laissaiz-faire, amid ripped jeans and economic boom, while on the other side of the ocean the Soviet Union is falling into pieces.

It is 1985 – Aretha Franklin’s voice is declared one of Michigan’s natural resources, and the world gasps for innovation, heralding the new. Windows 1.0 is released, the first heart transplant with total artificial heart is completed. The US is a country in the works, in revolution: it is tax-cuts, Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ and fighting recession.

In New York, amid the outlawing of discrimination of LGBT people in certain social contexts, Madonna launches her Virgin Tour, and Memory still echoes in Broadway. It’s drugs, crime, it’s rebuilding, it’s dealing with inequalities. It is people Dancing in the Street(s) to Bowie and Jagger, and it is said streets getting plastered with graffiti, adverts and then some peculiar billboards— amid the more iconic ones— made in protest against women’s discrimination in the arts.

Modelled on the pop-genre movement of a more Warhol-esque identity — as Warhol himself had challenged prejudices and conventions — New York is invaded with a new message printed on irreverent posters. It is the Guerrilla Girls who make them, an anonymous collective of women artists, on a mission to denounce the baffling injustices in the creative industry, which does not seem to have kept up with the rest of the world’s social emancipation.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Women in the arts is seen sometimes as a cliché, or we are not taken seriously.”[/pullquote]If you are strolling down the Southbank’s riverside walkway in London, and you pass by the Tate Modern, you could get a glimpse of these posters. Boiler House, Level 4 East: “How many women had a one-person exhibition at NYC museums last year?” recites one flyer. The answer is one, at the Museum of Modern Art. Then they leave you to make of that what you want.

Guerrilla Girls borrow from adverts, from mass production, making a subversive use of images. They’re just posters, but they’re sharp, critical, make noise, don’t need any form of subjective interpretation.  They are just the harsh reality, and it means that the harsh reality is something to get indignant about.

Guerrilla Girls’ public appearances require using pseudonyms that refer to past female artists and wearing gorilla masks, drawing from a coincidental as much as apt spelling mistake.

If recurrent is, in conventional symbolism, the depiction of apes as captive creatures subjugated to men — who have institutional power on their side — the imagery also defies canonical expectations of beauty and femininity, at length controversial within the art world.

Moving criticism towards museums, curators, media, and male artists who do not show solidarity, their loud ‘j’accuse’ is nothing more than necessity to fight sexism and racism and attempt to bridge the gap of inequality in the art community.

From behind the gorilla mask comes an invite, much like Kafka’s primal original discourse in his A Report to an Academy, for women to embrace the need to break free, seek independence, follow the inner push for subversion.

Often the 80s are perceived as that halo of open-minded attitude and transgression coming mostly from previous decades’ fights for freedom and emancipation, and it builds a façade hiding parts of humanity—and their struggles— often ignored, that when something is inconvenient nobody wants to see.

“My grandmother had to use her husband’s name to get space in a gallery in the early 80s. And that was in our small town, not in the Uffizi,” says Elena*, a relative of an Italian female painter who has struggled significantly in making of art her career.

“It has been draining, for her, to chase her dream of being an artist. You can imagine how it would be, when you experience disinterest and lack of support, but then a male name allows you to be taken seriously,” says Elena.

Guerrilla Girls and the arts illustration - Valentina Curci @ Artefact Magazine

Guerrilla Girls fight sexism in the arts.

The 80s might not be today, but are still decades after the implications of Frida Kahlo’s impact, aside from the tragic events of her life, proving that it is not, or — to stay politically correct — not only, a lack of talent preventing women to make it.

She became one of the most prominent representatives of Surrealism, when Surrealism especially resonated with women, allowing them with an unjudged and unbiased expression of unexplored visions of reality, with personalities like Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington contributing to the movement with equally beautiful work — overlooked as many other women’s flair production in art history programmes.

Kahlo is, discouragingly, often the only predictable answer to “can you name any woman artist?”. I have asked, and other than that one answer I got several blank stares, embarrassed silences and a couple of timid “does Marina Abramović count?”

It does.

But then, does it really, if we remember the art or the artist only when it is controversial?

The argument still stands in the case of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. We find her working hard in her father’s workshop, fighting for her place in the art world, damaged by a social environment where women were hardly, or never, accepted into intellectual communities or the royal courts’ circles of artists.

We could remember her for her artistic production, for being the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, yet it is the scandal that surrounds her life, and that brings to the table even more injustices towards women, what makes her name renowned.

The 17th Century was not bright for women, and having a painter, Orazio Gentileschi as a father was both Artemisia’s fortune and misfortune. It allowed her to learn the art, but it put her into contact with Agostino Tassi, who, after being instructed to tutor her took advantage of the young painter. Artemisia’s father brought Tassi to trial, and she was tortured to verify her testimony.

However, her work does not deserve accolades for matters of pity or social justice, or purely for being a woman’s product. Retracing determinate artistic forms, following Caravaggio’s school of chiaroscuro and agonising faces, especially women’s ones, she tries to fill the gaps of the lack of female figures in her life by showing female solidarity.

In a world still on the trail of Renaissance painting and heavy female body idolisation, she put women as protagonists in action. Powerful, fierce, in charge. The Bible is, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme, but if women in Christianity are destined to suffer, she suffered with them.

It is a tough job, to re-mould centuries of beliefs and customs about social roles and gender expectations. “If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens to the rest of the year? Discrimination,” scream Guerrilla Girls, pressing on the notion that admitting there is a problem is not enough to solve it.

[pullquote align=”right”]“You can imagine how it would be, when you experience disinterest and lack of support, but then a male name allows you to be taken seriously.”[/pullquote]Recognition and celebrations only suffice as much, when the causes are far more radicalised in history and in habits than it looks on the surface. We have rivers of words from Jane Austen informing us on the duties of a good woman in Georgian society. She needed to learn how to knit, play the piano, paint, but all for decorative and ludic purposes. She needed innocent and time-filling hobbies.

It was something that girls had to do, and informs us about the stupor of Fanny Price’s cousins in Mansfield Park. “Do you know, she says she does not want to learn either music or drawing,” they tell their aunt of Fanny, thinking they, instead, have mastered culture and knowledge, as if learning to play or draw would have brought them anywhere other than on the stool in front of their mansion’s piano, to both impress and entertain the first gentleman come to ask their hand.

“For long period of times, speaking about humanities, the activity and the practice of literature and arts were saved for women who came from wealthy or noble families,” says Viviana Farina, History of Arts expert and lecturer in the History of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts of Naples.

“So, I believe that arts, which are considered more ‘gentle’ subjects and therefore canonically suitable to the female world, for how it has been perceived for ages, were, even for those women who dedicated their lives to it, a contained activity, in the time they would spend on it and in the low expectations, since the intellectual subjects have always been men’s priorities,” she says.

Frustrating is, when existent, a critic’s commentary of many women’s art, in its poor attempt at concealing stupor on socially active content or lack of kind, ‘feminine’ touches.

“Who could think in fact that over a sheet so candid, a so brutal and terrible massacre could happen. A woman painted all this?” was said once of an Artemisia painting. As if women could only paint flowers while the duty and privilege to expressionism and explanation of the world through emotions, fears and symbolism was left to men’s monopoly.

There is an ancient myth recalling the history of how art was invented. In the myth, the first artist was a woman. Kora, with her very ‘woman-y’ feelings, standing put in her social role, sketched the profile of her lover, who was going to war.

Albeit relegated to be the one to wait and exhaust her tears in subordination to a man’s mundane actions, the legend makes her the first ever artist. And yet, it is not enough to fill the gap left by unawareness of other women in the field.

There have been female artists who have fought and won battles of gender norms, there have been women who have set a precedent for their successors.

Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the very first women to be accepted into artistic practice, won a battle for other women after her; Artemisia, Lavinia Fontana— another pioneer in studying and painting the female nude body. There was no paint in her blood already, not much money in her family, yet she fought for her education, was hired to tutor the Spanish Queen but was called a handmaid, until she finally succeeded in becoming a court painter.

George Sand and Marietta Robusti disguised as males to be accepted in creative communities - illustration by Valentina Curci @ Artefact Magazine

George Sand and Marietta Robusti disguised as males to be accepted in creative communities.

We call these women pioneers, when they were doing the same thing males had been doing for centuries already. And although since 1985 and the start of Guerrilla Girls’ protests, the data can be updated with a better outturn, the National Museum of Women in the Arts says that even though 51 per cent of visual artists today are women, the percentage is not reflected in exhibitions. In London only five per cent of galleries to have space equally shared by men and women.

“I do not think I am saying something extremely provoking by stating that I believe women keep on having less opportunities than men. It is something rooted in history: for women artists, the studio practice was held in the father’s workshop. We are, therefore, almost always speaking about artist’s daughters, although it was still a lot more common to teach the job and the art to male progeny. Women had to stick to the domestic life,” explains Professor Farina, shedding a light on what those women had to endure just to be able to practice.

As a result, stories of women having to disguise as men to even enter workshops, to get into intellectual circles became common. Maria Robusti — or Tintoretta —, talented daughter of the more famous Tintoretto, had to dress up as a young boy to practice in her father’s studio. History says Tintoretto was extremely fond of his daughter, taught her the art, made her his assistant, yet tapped her wings and forbade her from leaving to become court painter for Philip II of Spain.

George Sand — though in a different field of creative practice — criticised for expressing political preferences (republican and appreciative of Lamennais), turned socialist, dressed as a man and penned her work as George instead of Aurore, to see her literature treated with the same standards given to men’s. Yet we still manage to remember her for her love affair with the composer Frédéric Chopin.

“If you think of Artemisia, her private situation crossed paths with her professional life, and that created an echo,” says Professor Farina. “I am not sure she would have managed to impose herself had she not had that chitchat around her character. Sofonisba Anguissola is not older than Artemisia, but we know she stayed a niche artist. We need to wait for the 19th Century to observe more important personalities, if not for the 20th, as it is more tied to the sexual and feminist revolution.”

Women have responded differently to the stimuli that the world subjected them to, and just as neglected are the women, their creation and the discourse their creations could have generated, this fact itself is bringing in the open-air observations, raw feelings, new visions, expressive forces. Sex and gender need, for this reason, to be taken into account for the interpretation of women’s art, but in a cautious way, as usually a gendered reading only manages to lower or raise expectations towards a work of art.

As much as we like to imagine we are in an emancipated world, we are still celebrating small victories for women in the wild field that is equality. Men must fight to make it, women must fight to make it and fight sexism and discrimination to make it, and still, it is almost a required field for a woman to make powerful, assertive statements because otherwise they just stay on par with the expectation of producing art that is just nice.

[pullquote align=”right”]“For long period of times … the activity and the practice of literature and arts were saved for women who came from wealthy or noble families.”[/pullquote]“Women in the arts is seen sometimes as a cliché, or we are not taken seriously,” says Sophie, a former Fine Arts student. “Stemming from gender stereotypes of women being more creative and men being more logical, I find it incredibly stupefying that men are the ones dominating the art world. Is it because women are ‘predisposed to be artsy’, and men who do art are more ‘rare’?” she says. “I feel that the arts take women for granted sometimes.”

So being a woman in the arts can in some respects be empowering, as it spurs one to fight and help reshape the general stance toward women perpetrated by art and entertainment by being able to choose the mean of expression and the message. Only the message, to exist, needs a receiver, a listener.

“For me, as someone who left one creative sector like Fine Arts and transferred to another, I still find the prospect of finding a job daunting. Who doesn’t? I don’t think I will struggle as woman in the world of creativity, but perhaps that is because as a female, I have been raised to be confident and to defy female stereotypes despite everyone else,” says Sophie.

Late 1900 might have seen a surge in raising awareness over feminism, where feminist ideas can be discussed more publicly and freely, yet it is still to these days prominent the pressure unleashed upon women in conforming to conventional stereotypes of beauty and body image, since women are considered objects in most media, in arts, in advertising, in film.

One of the most iconic Guerrilla Girls’ billboards asks: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” The statistics are disconcerting: five per cent of modern artists are female, as are 85 per cent of the nudes.

“The art world is full of inequalities,” says Agnes, another Fine Arts student. “In the film industry, most of the persons holding the camera are males, but you don’t see any current movie without a close-up on a female body.

“In the fashion industry, women are the best “mean” to sell products. Even at the time of Louis XIV, most of the paintings that were sold were often those representing female bodies or female characters. We can feel objectified, fetishised within and even outside of the art industry. We are constantly confronted to sexist images used to advertise products,” she says.

It must be easy to ignore the damages, ignore the effects of how this perception of the woman has altered the way the woman is led to see herself and the representation of herself, letting images suffocate the beauty of self-consciousness, like oppressing demons.

In between there has been the Christian view of females, the exploitation of female nudity, the banning of women from workshops, from studying the human body, the very few representations of women made by women. There are, therefore, years of identity missing, stolen and stamped upon.

Women's misrepresentation in the arts - Guerrilla Girls - illustration by Valentina Curci

Misrepresentation of women in the Arts.

There is more often a matter of education and access to discuss, while the stagnant reality of social roles that could not be undermined until too late hindered women and watered down their aims, as too instilled was the awareness that they could not access significant roles.

We have often ignored matters of sex, race and class when analysing issues within the arts world and today we fail to acknowledge to still have some residual prejudice or tendency to dismiss women’s work as shallow, which becomes daunting for women who want to make creativity their career path.

“It is one thing to consider women’s position as artists and entirely another one to consider women’s position as intellectuals within the arts. It’s two different things,” said Professor Farina.

“Undeniably, from an artistic practice point of view, women had to wait until the 1950s or even 1970s to carve a self-sufficient role for themselves. Regarding the intellectual sector, I am probably biased in saying that it is still harder to receive attention, compared to the male gender. Even the great university professors had to be men, while women started to emancipate career-wise only in the 60s, and yet they were still a small percentage,” she told us.

“Women could only teach in primary school, as school jobs had a minor importance, and you would not overshadow your husband. Even if you had a top-notch degree you would not be able to reach a higher position than a man. And besides, school at the time would still finish at lunchtime. It was all very convenient.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“The art world is full of inequalities.”[/pullquote]Johan Joseph Zoffany’s 1771 painting portrays The Academicians of the Royal Academy. The portrait shows the drawing room at Old Somerset House, full of intellectuals — all men — engaging in an animated and enlightening conversation, probably setting up the class while male models are posing. There is no trace of women.

“Teaching in this industry has always been complicated,” says prof. Farina who herself has faced discrimination in the arts’ teaching. “You need to be part of a certain group of people, it is useless to deceive yourself that you can make it on your own because it’s always gone one way.  I believe we have yet to achieve equal opportunities in doing intellectual tasks,” she says.

Founded in 1768, the British Royal Academy actually had two women amid their original 40 members: Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser. Kauffmann was active in circles of Neoclassicism painters, while Moser was one of two floral painters accepted in the academy.

If you look closely, they indeed are in Zoffany’s painting; women were not allowed in the studio, not allowed to study the nude figure, and the two female founder members figure as two portraits on the walls of the room, a perplexing inception to reinforce the concept that women were better off as being subject of art.

They can enjoy the role of muse and still model, look pretty while the more expert men discuss, study, analyse and produce. It only perpetuates the assumption about the role of a woman and her capability, that led to denying education abreast of men and access to public life, not to talk about teaching.

They call them master-pieces, after all.

“They will always prefer a man to a woman on work places,” says Giulia, who has studied Fine Arts and went into specialising in Set Design. “Often a woman in an environment of mainly men is overlooked and never listened to. You must fight for your space, when men already have it. I feel it on my skin, be it when I am submitting an idea or when I am welding on set,” she says.

“You always need to remind people to listen, to take your opinion into consideration. Only working you can really understand how this emancipation is only apparent. We earn less, we are overtaken even when we are in charge, just because we are women. And if you are a woman and you have success many will think that you used other ways to achieve that.”

Lady Oscar - The Roses of Versailles illustration - feminist anime

The author of this piece watching ‘Lady Oscar’, feminist icon of Japanese anime.

Another poster by Guerrilla Girls ironically pinpoints the advantages of being a woman artist: working without the pressure of success, having an escape from the art world in your four free-lance jobs, having the opportunity to choose between career and motherhood.

It is important to talk of art not only as a mean of expression but also as a job, and to bang pans and pots about the difficulties of being a woman in an already difficult area of creativity.

There’s need of reappraisal of talent, but there is a need for tutelage, when the main issue is that women are never enough. A report from Science states that young girls feel like they are less likely to be brilliant than their male counterparts. It grows within a woman, the feeling they have a baggage for being one, of being less smart, less strong, less capable.

[pullquote align=”right”]“Often a woman in an environment of mainly men is overlooked and never listened to.”[/pullquote]I used to watch this one anime when I was small. It was called The Rose of Versailles, and like many Japanese animes it was filled with incredible life lessons.

It was the story of Oscar, the daughter of the leader of the palace guards in Louis XVI’s France. The opening song started with the enlightening lyrics your dad wanted a boy, but disgracefully it was born you”, and the anime would narrate of how Oscar was raised as a boy and kept pretending to be one, to become commander of the Royal Guard.

Many say it was a wonderful example of feminism, and for a long time I looked up to Oscar as my model of women’s power and emancipation. And she was empowering. I was small, and did not understand much about gender norms and equality, and just thought it would be cool for once to do like Oscar, to talk about football and be taken seriously.

But then you realise that feeling proud of her is not the real victory, since her’s was a defiant fight, but not a victory itself. It is not even a victory when you start to realise you should feel anger and indignation on her behalf. But, you could argue, it was the 1700s.

Yes, it was. And that is why the real victory would be looking back and being able to say: “Look how far we’ve come”.



*The interviewee wished to remain anonymous.

Illustrations by Valentina Curci

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