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Where are all the women?

The National Gallery's exhibition, "After Impressionism: Inventing Modern Art", supposedly shows the radical, rule-breaking work by some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. But from a period where women art students outnumbered men, why has the National Gallery fixated on the same 3 male artists as always?

The quest to re-write art history to include artists who weren't just white men has been going on for decades, if not hundreds of years. It was 1971 when Linda Nochlin wrote her seminal essay, "Why have there been no great women artists?", but the art world and galleries are still massively dominated by the same few men. In the National Gallery less than 1% of the pictures on the walls are by women, and the story isn't much better anywhere else.

The gender inequality is ever so slightly better in this exhibition, with women artists making up 5% of the works being exhibited, but it is still an embarrassingly low statistic. The disparity can't be explained by a lack of women-created material either; in the twentieth-century, there were more women than men studying and producing art in many of the great schools, and there were plenty of ground-breaking, talented women whose art we could be exhibiting.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876 - 1907) produced more than 700 paintings during her tragically short life, including some of the most radical self portraits in art history. She was one of the first female artists ever to paint nude self portraits, and certainly the first to paint a nude, pregnant self portrait. She developed her own techniques, including scratching into the wet paint to give her portraits a distinct texture. The art historian Diane Radycki has even argued that Modersohn-Becker was an influence on Picasso, yet her life and work has been consistently overlooked.

Like Modersohn-Becker, the Chinese artist Pan Yuliang (1895 - 1977) painted nude self-portraits and has been pushed down into the footnotes of art history. Pan studied from revolutionary artists in China in the 1920s before moving to Europe in the 1930s. She dabbled in Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Naturalism throughout her career, producing thousands of works. Her radicalism and ingenuity is apparent in her works, particularly in her later career where she made her own technique blending traditional Chinese ink painting and European form. Despite her prolific talent, Pan is hardly known outside of China, and even there she has been largely forgotten.

Pan Yuliang and Paula Modersohn-Becker are just two female artists from the post-impressionist period which the National Gallery could have put in the spotlight. But instead by framing the exhibit around Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh, the Gallery has followed the same old pattern of art history celebrating, even mythologising, "genius" men.

E H Gombrich's The Story of Art, first published in 1950, is still the bestselling art book in the world, and is mandatory reading for most art history courses. Designed as an overview of the evolution of art from ancient cave paintings to modernism, via the renaissance, it is quite literally the definitive text on how art functions and developed. And yet Gombrich didn't include a single female artist in the first fifteen editions, only adding one woman in the sixteenth version of his book. Even Giorgio Vasari, an art historian during the Renaissance, did better than that, name-checking four women in his work, Lives of the Artists.

The problem is not a lack of source material or that women just didn't make art to the same standard as their male counterparts. The problem is that the world of art history -- galleries, authors, art dealers, art critics, and lecturers -- still obsesses over the "genius" men whose art makes money. When we start to challenge the purity of this genius -- trying to disentangle Gauguin's obsession with bold primitivism from the fact that he impregnated children as young as thirteen when he lived in Tahiti is an uncomfortable challenge which curators still attempt -- we begin to realise that art and art history is much more complicated than a linear timeline.

Essentially, the reason that women are still missing from the walls of art galleries and from the standard textbooks of art history is misogyny. The art which became definitive of its era was usually created by men who were paid by other men to make art. Before women were allowed to access education, economic freedom, or the public sphere without a man, they simply could not create in the same way as there male counterparts. As Linda Nochlin wrote back in 1971,

No amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male-chauvinist distortion of history.

Art is a reflection of society, and as long as society was (arguably, is) misogynistic and centred around the celebration of individual men, there will never be equality on the walls of our galleries. It should be the task of institutions like the National Gallery to celebrate the work of women, and not to maintain the unequal, uninteresting status quo.

Find out more:

  • The Story of Art Without Men, Katy Hessel (2022) (and check out Katy's podcast, "The Great Women Artists")

  • The Mirror and the Palette, Jennifer Higgie (2021)

  • A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, Siri Hustvedt (2016)

  • Women in the Picture: Women, Art and the Power of Looking, Catherine McCormack (2021)

  • A Little History of Art, Charlotte Mullins (2022)

  • Why have there been no great women artists?, Linda Nochlin (1971)

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