Welcome Back… With Books
Well, it’s been some time since I have been back blogging on “WhatsArtBlog”. So this is a strange feeling. It is not that I have not been thinking about art or journaling, but a blog is a formal exercise and I usually write about others and their artwork. But today I thought it might be nice to exchange on one of the ways I sort through my ideas, and that's with books.
Before I start on my topic, I want to thank those persons and entities who have continued to make their art and artwork available whether through postings on Facebook and Instagram, YouTube or Zoom, and the articles on many helpful issues for artists. All keep the brain refreshed. I also want to thank my friend Ruth Wolf who gave me a subscription to Artforum International. If you are unfamiliar, Artforum is a monthly art magazine focusing on contemporary art. It has in-depth interviews and personal essays, columns on cinema and visual arts, reviews of current art exhibitions at various venues from around the world, and lots of colorful advertising for prominent galleries and art institutions. Four times a year it is accompanied by Bookforum, a supplemental magazine covering books and literary discussions . Leafing through Art- and Book-forum leaves me feeling invigorated. I find myself arguing (actually out loud to no one) sometimes as I read through the various articles. It feels like I'm in grad. school again!
My journey began with a request to teach a class on Webex based on Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking article Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?. Written in 1971, Nochlin points out the issues which I like to call “The Lacks”: lack of education, lack of mobility, lack of independence (both financial and status), and lack of recognition. Nochlin ably discussed the first three “lacks”—i.e. education, mobility, independence of finances or status. But she never really addresses the lack of recognition. She never questioned her colleagues on the premise of the question. Instead, she acquiesced to the foundation of their question, never disputing deficiencies in reportage in order to answer this question.
In actuality, there were many women artists throughout time. Vasari is credited with writing the first book of modern art history. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects he included four women in depth, and mentioned several others. Most were daughter-assistants to their “great artist fathers”. Yet, these artists were ignored when it came to the textbooks on art history that were the basis for the classes artists attended and that museums used for their collections. For example, HW Janson’s History of Art did not mention a single female artist until 1987; and Gardner’s Art Through the Ages did not mention women artists until even later.
I think here there should be a little talk about the groundbreaking work done by Helen Gardner in her Art Through the Ages. Where other art history books concentrated on European Art with a section on “Art in Asia” or “Art by Indigenous People”, Gardner, in her writing, did comparisons based on time period. This allowed the understanding of how art reflects the beliefs of a culture and the interactions between different cultures that could produce interesting art. Unfortunately, after Gardner’s death subsequent editors moved toward a greater sectioning off even offering selections named “Non-European Art”.
Needless to say, I felt my knowledge of Art History needed to be supplemented beyond Linda Nochlin and The Guerilla Girls. (If you don’t know who they are, click here.) The first women mentioned in Janson were Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, and Mary Cassatt, in Gardner, Kathe Kollwitz— women who, during their own time were recognized as being accomplished. So how did this happen?
I began with thinking about critique. By reading formal analysis on art (particularly visual art) I might find strategies of judgement and inclusion. For example, in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, men were “genius” or “touched by God” while the women “acquired skills through teaching by men” or “hard work”. Quite different attitudes when, in fact, all artists studied with master artists in apprenticeships. But a women could not be formal because she could not be public. So the factor comes down to status—women were not citizens on their own but extensions of the family. Women were charged with “reproduction” of which childbirth and the domestic spheres are a part while men were charged with “production”, the creation of objects of the world and in the world—hence God the Creator and overseer of the world (in Euro-centric tradition) is a man.
Looking at two of my anthologies on Art Criticism: Art and Its Significance edited by Stephen David Ross and Art in Theory 1900 – 2000 edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, I find the selection of articles written by women or about women artists from each of these tomes is relatively scant but enlightening. From Art and Its Significance, I was already familiar with “Nine Principles of a Matriarchal Aesthetics by Heide Gottner-Abendroth. This is more of a guide to explain what a system based on matriarchal aesthetics would look like more than a call for the overthrow of the patriarchy (although there is criticism), instead focusing on action and attributes the author sees in women-based
governance systems. These include the cyclical, collectivism, ritualism and dance, beauty, magic, communing with nature, and eroticism. Craig Owens “The Discourse of Others:
In Art in Theory 1900 – 2000, the first female name doesn’t appear until Frida Kahlo: On
Moses 1945,basically an artist statement on the commission “Moses, 1945”. The painting was based on her reading of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. A real breakthrough for me came toward the almost end of this huge tome. Who Claims Alterity? by Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak (read “alterity” as “other” or “otherness”) reminds me of Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste. Both use narratives—Wilkerson’s of various people and events, Spivak of herself, to define, describe, and deconstruct “otherness” . But where Wilkerson does not present a strategy for coming to terms Spivak looks to teaching in the humanities as a place to start.
This brings me to specific books that give me names, biographical details, and examples of artwork by women. Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who made Art and Made History (In that Order) by Bridget Quinn is an enjoyable way to ease into the subject. This book represents a story within a story. The overriding theme is the 15 women chosen by the author. But there is also a narrative connecting and sequencing each artist—and that is Quinn’s narrative of her own life’s story during the time of deciding then writing this book. Most of the artists I knew, for some (like Vanessa Bell) there was further insight, and for one, Susan O’Malley, an introduction. There are images of their work but a feature I found charming was the illustration of each artist by Lisa Congoon.
Women in Art: 50 Fearless Creatives Who Inspired the World is a great book for educators or for an adult to share with children. Written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky it does not carry images of artist’s artwork, instead having colorfully designed pages depicting the artist surrounded by colors, motifs, and text explaining the artist’s interest and career. The artists are arranged chronologically and cover a broad range. Together with an illustrated timeline, Elements and Principles of Art and Design, Statistics in Art (The Art Market), Art Tools, and finishing with More Women in Art, I find this to be a great introduction to the topic of women artists, yet it also gave me some tidbits that I never found in other art history books. (Did you know that ¾ of the paintings with hands depicted nearby appear to be female hands?)
Great Women Artists is a coffee-table sized book with coffee-table type images of artwork for each of the over 400 artists that it shows. This is a large book and the layout of one artist's work per page can lead to some strange bedfellows. Still, as large as this volume is, it is by no means exhaustive. I was disappointed not to find artists such as Violet Oakley, Isabel Bishop, Lucia Moholy, Gunte Stolzl, Otti Berger, Elizabeth Black, Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson, Yvonne Jacquette, Katherine Bradford, and Jennifer Bartlett— just to name a few not listed. Part of the problem is that this book focuses a little too much on artists whose work is slanted “feminist” and it doesn’t include areas like architecture or design—which might be why so many “Bauhaus Women” were left out.
Under the title of “Specialty Books” is Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective by Elizabeth Otto and Patrick Rossler. Arranged according to the date they matriculated into the Bauhaus, there are fantastic images of the women, their artwork, and candid shots of activities. Each write-up comes with a “box score” on the first page giving details of birth, death, year matriculated, and places they lived. And, given the complexity of the time and circumstances, the stories of these women are engrossing. I was especially cheered to see that Ise Gropius (wife to Walter Gropius and lover to Herbert Bayer) was included. Everything about this book is clean, clear, and compelling.
Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Presentation, Identity not only gave me names of women artists and patrons of this time period, but also more fully developed what a woman’s life (or at least, a woman of a certain station) would have been like by exploring artifacts. The book is divided into sections based on themes representing these artifacts-- marriage furnishings, portraits, the nude, and depictions of saints. There were a great number of pictures which clarifies the descriptions given, but all in black and white... which is disappointing. (It did make me realize the balance of value especially in the Titians!)
My most recent read is Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel. This book is loaded with information—images of artwork, black and white photographs, stories, gossip. It is well researched with 138 pages of Notes and almost 100 pages of Bibliography. (Basically a book in book itself!) Not to worry, though, this book is 53 chapters plus an Introduction, Prologue, and Epilogue. And each chapter begins with a quote. And the writing is marvelous! Kind of a timeline and kind of a novel pivoting from character and place and event. I’ve listened to the book twice now and continue to read it at a slower pace to savor it. And because I have to, the writing is so small.
I hope this little reading list of mine has piqued your interest.