I’m a woman, I saved pondering, studying these two books. Extra: I’m a woman artwork historian. Oughtn’t I to love books by different girl artwork historians about girl artists and women in artwork? Why don’t I? Why so out of sync with the sisterhood?
Begin with the constructive. Jennifer Higgie’s The Mirror and the Palette follows an fascinating, authentic line: ‘If she had entry to a mirror, a palette, an easel and paint, a girl might endlessly mirror on her face and, by extension, her place on this planet.’ Higgie, editor-at-large at frieze journal and the host of the (glorious) artwork historical past podcast Bow Down, considers the lives and ambitions of a collection of girls artists within the mild of the self-portraits they painted. There are massive names — Artemisia Gentileschi, Sofonisba Anguissola, Judith Leyster, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Angelica Kauffman, Gwen John, Leonora Carrington — and hidden gems comparable to Helene Schjerfbeck, Margaret Preston and the Australian Nora Heysen.
The prologue opens with a contemporary translation from Christine de Pizan’s The E-book of the Metropolis of Girls (1405): ‘Anybody who wished might cite plentiful examples of outstanding girls on this planet as we speak: it’s merely a matter of on the lookout for them.’ Higgie has regarded and she or he has discovered. Typically what she has discovered is absence. Within the first editions of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Artwork (1950) and H.W. Janson’s Historical past of Artwork (1962) not a single lady artist is talked about. Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956) musters not one lady painter or sculptor. Within the index, beneath ‘lady’ are listed: ‘condemnations of; crouching; outdated; nudes of; prehistoric; statues of; as virgin.’
Girls aren’t merely ignored, they’re actively excluded — from studios, from workshops, from artwork schools, golf equipment and academies. They’re restricted by domesticity and diminished by critics. When Nora Heysen turned not solely the youngest artist to win the Archibald in 1938, essentially the most prestigious artwork prize in Australia, however the first lady to win it, beating 84 different artists, the Australian Lady’s Weekly reported her victory beneath the headline ‘Woman Painter Who Gained Artwork Prize is Additionally a Good Cook dinner.’ The journal printed Heysen’s recipes for Hungarian goulash, duck with olive sauce and Chilean stuffed inexperienced peppers.
Higgie needlessly editorializes. Don’t inform us that Giovanni Boccaccio opines with ‘staggering pomposity’ that ‘the artwork of portray is generally alien to the female thoughts and can’t be attained with out that nice mental focus which girls as a rule are very sluggish to amass.’ Simply quote the blighter. Let the person incriminate himself. ‘Male’ is used within the guide as a time period, if not of abuse, then actually of accusation. ‘Male’ — baddie. ‘White male’ — super-baddie. ‘Privileged white male’ — mega-arch-super-baddie.
Catherine McCormack’s Girls within the Image takes artwork historical past as its place to begin, then casts a wider internet. McCormack’s topic is ostensibly 4 female archetypes (Venus; Moms; Maidens and Useless Damsels; Monstrous Girls), however her survey consists of Hollywood waxes, Gillette razors, Pinterest boards, influencers, ‘daddy points’, yummy mummies, unhealthy mothers, Stacy’s Mother, Stifler’s Mother, ‘milfdom’, Instances Up, #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, The Handmaid’s Story, Killing Eve, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Surprise Lady, Kim Kardashian’s internet-breaking backside and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion WAP-ing away. The guide is bang updated, however it could possibly really feel like scrolling by means of the homepage of Jezebel, the self-styled ‘supposedly feminist web site’. McCormack is the founding father of the ‘Girls and Artwork’ examine program at Sotheby’s Institute of Artwork, and I see how these chapters lend themselves to vigorous, partaking lectures. On the web page they’re onerous work. She writes of Beyoncé remodeling herself
‘by first drowning within the symbolic repressive imagery of the maiden however finally passing by means of it into one thing new. This “new” is an expression of the ‘black female’ seen by itself phrases, and past the polarizing framework of white tradition that sees blackness (or black femininity) solely by way of non-whiteness and as unique and “different”.’
I get what she means, however, oof, it’s an effort. Describing Titian’s ‘Rape of Europa’ (1560- 62) McCormack writes of ‘succulent thighs splayed awkwardly akimbo’. Splayed and akimbo? With regards to Medusa, her ‘early id and snaky attributes are advanced and muddied by the sands of time’. Is sand muddy? A few of it’s merely foolish. Observing that Velázquez’s ‘The Rokeby Venus’ (1647-51) is flanked in London’s Nationwide Gallery by portraits of an archbishop and a king, McCormack asks: ‘Do they guard her or personal her?’ Neither. Don’t go on the lookout for bother and don’t problematize the unproblematic.
McCormack isn’t unsuitable. I’m along with her on plenty of it, however the tone of grudge, gripe and the grievance of millennia does the case no favors. It’s what put me off feminist artwork historical past at college. It’s what places lots of people off. The Higgie strategy is not less than reasonably extra celebratory. When Higgie quotes a letter from Élisabeth Vigée le Brun, making a splash in Florence — ‘They name me Madame Van Dyck, Madame Rubens’ — I need to cheer.
You catch extra flies with honey than vinegar and also you catch extra readers with good prose than unhealthy. The writing in each books is pedestrian. One sentence plods after one other. The authors’ voices by no means skip, by no means fluctuate, by no means run away with their readers. Just a little wit, lightness and irony would go a great distance. It isn’t — to squash one sexist canard — that ladies aren’t humorous. See Bridget Phetasy in The Spectator for proof in any other case. What’s wished isn’t essentially humor, however what Kenneth Clark, borrowing from Baldassare Castiglione’s E-book of the Courtier, may need known as sprezzatura — ease, sprint, amusement, a taking of enjoyment in life. Clark could have sinned by omission in The Nude, however, my god, the person might write. Such sinuous, persuasive prose.
I generally catch myself studying an essay by Clark or Ruskin or Clive Bell or Robert Hughes or Roger Fry and nodding as I’m going alongside: sure, sure, completely. It’s solely on the finish that I believe: ‘Dangle on a minute. I don’t agree with a phrase you’ve mentioned.’ They elevate you up, these pale, stale males, just like the abductors in Giambologna’s ‘Rape of the Sabine Girls’, and carry you off. Name me a patsy of the patriarchy, however studying Griselda Pollock has solely ever forged me down.
The Nationwide Gallery of London’s ‘Artemisia’ exhibition final 12 months went massive on Gentileschi’s line, written to a patron: ‘I’ll present Your Illustrious Lordship what a girl can do.’ Growth. That’s the stuff. Instantly you’re on her aspect, preventing her nook, prepared her on. It’s the Shania Twain spirit: Man! I Really feel Like a Lady!
Man, I felt depressed studying these books with their narratives of wrestle, misogyny, marginalization, being neglected and being at all times on the surface trying in. Or on the partitions trying on. All books about girls artists should wag a finger at Johann Zoffany’s group portrait ‘The Academicians of the Royal Academy’ (1771-2). Right here come the boys, all breeches and palettes, and, there, the place you would possibly simply miss them, are the 2 girls members, the one ones, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman, decreased to photos on a wall. It’s at all times informed as if it have been an insult. Reframe the image, shift the story. Won’t Moser and Kauffman have checked out each other — and in any respect the woman painters who didn’t make the lower — and thought in quiet triumph: ‘We’re in.’
This text was initially revealed in The Spectator’s November 2021 World version.