More than 50 years have passed since Linda Nochlin (b. 1931) in her essay Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists? called for a feminist art history.
The British art historian Katy Hessel has her book The Story of Art (Without Men) now put on the agenda the possibility that there is an alternative history of art – for those who have ended up in the shadow of the history that is concentrated on the works of male artists.
There is no counterfactual understanding of the Western art that Hessel has embarked on, nor is there any underlying idea that there is a distinctly feminine mode of expression within art. The book spans over 500 years, and although the artist identities may be different from those usually encountered in an overview of this type, the linear development is the same. For Hessel, the canon of Western art, with its strong male dominance, is worth challenging. And she doesn't kick in open doors. Art done by men is simply given more attention: in collections, in exhibition programs, in art literature, in the art market.
It is with anticipation that I open the well-illustrated book. Because there should be no doubt that the book, in its consistent perspective that the story is not yet fully told – is an important publication. Although the book's history stretches over 550 pages, the center of gravity of the narrative lies in the last 150 years.
Art literature has often preferred to link changes within the discipline to names, and these have often been men. In the chapter on Camille Claudel (1864-1943), who many know had a relationship with Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) during the time when she was an assistant at his sculptor's workshop, Hessel suggests that Claudel's influence on Rodin has often been understood as the opposite. Which of them was the first to come up with a sculptural expression that also included movement and the tentative representation of an inner life has probably not been decided once and for all. There is reason to see works like Claudel's It was worth it as a far more original contribution to the development of art than as a cry for help from a scorned mistress to a male genius.
The chapter on queer art history offers a bunch of artistry of great interest, for example Gluck (Hannah Gluchstein, 1895-1978), with images that both play with gender identity and make room for more vulnerable aspects of the human. In such a review of women's art history (without men), questions related to gender and identity will presuppose what is highlighted. Within the avant-garde art scene around and after the First World War, art emerged that problematizes gender identity. While there is often something cool, almost classicist and at the same time naive about Gluck, where shame never pretends to be far away, an artist such as Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) has also depicted a freewheeling female sexuality – which found its outlet in same-sex activity in steamy picturesque form.
Andy Warhols Marilyn Monroe is indisputably an icon created within pop art. But Monroe was also a motif for British Pauline Boty (1938-66). Her The Only Blonde in The World was painted after Monroe's death in 1963. An exuberant character appears to be covered by a curtain that is about to close. The pattern in the carpet may bring to mind angel wings. The expression is still pop, but with Boty there is also an emotional content – not as sentimentality, but more in line with contemporary pop music. The original simple and superficial eventually became an idiom for complex contexts as well. To some extent, Hessel has also drawn in the significance of the BBC with its art program in the book Pop Goes Easel had for Boty's visibility on the British art scene – her person received an advantage in the television medium.
The exhibition International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984 showed 169 different artists' works from the past ten years. Of these, 17 were women. The ethnicity understanding of 'international' was limited to 17 nations. This
spawned a feminist rebel collective called the Guerilla Girls – who are still both active and necessary. Through text-based poster art and performance, they produced political art that could communicate to a high degree about the shortcomings of the art world within these circles, where they drew their material. With their hard-hitting, perceptible ideologically grounded art outside of this, they also seemed like truth-tellers who had finally had the curtain pulled aside.
Hessel takes her story all the way up to the present day and dares to point to several British artists she believes may be important in the future. Good art historians should also be listened to when they talk about the contemporary, even if we have to admit that the world has become relatively unclear over time. British Flora Yukhonovich's art has a mild concoction of painterly tradition built into it. With what seems like an artisanal ease and willingness to please the viewer's eyes, she creates paintings that equally flow across time and place. They hold something firmly in front of us, give the viewers air and nourishment in the moment or at the same time rest in tradition.
Still a hegemony
Hessel acknowledges that the art institutions of our time are actors who are aware of working in times of change. Equally, statistical information shows that the male art historical canon still has a hegemony, even if it has become the subject of discussion.
In his refreshing review of the history of art over the last five hundred years, Hessel does not create a narrative in which the paintings themselves become an expression of the gender identity of the authors or are limited to this. Rather, it becomes the important story of the other art, as an expression of genus – where gender hegemony has been supported by all surrounding social structures.
The reading of Hessels The Story of Art (Without Men) makes us understand that art history can withstand a revision for our own good. Seen in isolation, the large number of female artists over the past 500 years serves as a reminder that our judgments about art, artists and art history are not set in stone. I apologize for the pun at the end: Read Hessel instead. Her book is free of easily bought phrases.