Turning the tables: a self-portrait by Dutch Golden Age painter Judith Leyster from 1630. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Telling the story of art—without men

Why were there no great female artists? Actually, there were plenty
September 8, 2022

“How did museums get away with celebrating the history of patriarchy instead of the history of art?” asks the curator and art historian Katy Hessel. It’s a question worthy of the feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls, who plagued New York’s art institutions in the 1980s with posters attacking the woeful way that the art world treated women: fewer “than 5 per cent of the artists” in the Met were women, “but 85 per cent of the nudes are female,” read one poster.

Over 30 years later you might think that things have changed: for the first time ever, Great Britain is represented by a black woman—Sonia Boyce—at the Venice Biennale, and female artists from Paula Rego to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye have recently been the subjects of major institutional exhibitions.

But do not be lulled into a false sense of progress. The statistics are damning: women artists make up just 1 per cent of the National Gallery’s collection—a museum that only staged its first solo show of a historic female artist (Artemisia Gentileschi) in 2020. The Royal Academy is yet to host a solo exhibition by a woman in its main space: its first is next year, with works by the Serbian conceptual and performance artist Marina Abramovi.
When I meet Katy Hessel—the author of a new book, The Story of Art Without Men, and host of the Great Women Artists podcast—she has recently spoken to Abramovi. The artist is famous for her work exploring the limits of pain and endurance (in one work, Rhythm 5, she lay inside a burning star-shaped wooden frame; the fire sucked up the oxygen until she lost consciousness and had to be rescued). Yet her podcast discussion with Hessel is surprisingly light, open and revelatory. The pair drink Yorkshire Gold tea in the artist’s New York apartment as they discuss everything from the limits of performance art to how Abramovi can withstand so much suffering in the name of her work.

This mixture of accessible conversation and informed art history is the hallmark of Hessel’s style. She launched a “Great Women Artists” Instagram account in 2015, after attending an art fair in which “out of the thousands of artworks,” there was “not a single one” by a woman. The podcast—on which Hessel has spoken to artists Cecily Brown, Maggi Hambling and Howardena Pindell, and art lovers including Deborah Levy and Ali Smith—was the next step.

Her book has a similar origin story. Hessel was using EH Gombrich’s seminal 1950 book, The Story of Art, to construct a timeline in the Tate Modern. There was only one problem: even in its most recent 16th edition, which came out in 2007, “there was not a single woman other than Käthe Kollwitz [the early 20th-century German artist] mentioned.” In Hessel’s book, she writes about over 300 female artists—and reconstructs a female-only timeline of the history of art from the Renaissance to the present day.

But why have women been excluded from art history for so long? In her groundbreaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Linda Nochlin did not spare the blushes of her fellow feminists. “The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse,” she wrote. For Nochlin, this was the fault of institutional difficulties: women often lacked education, were prevented from studying nude figures, and traditional art history did not value their achievements.

Though Hessel says she “stands on the shoulders” of Nochlin and other feminist scholars, her book is in part a riposte to the claim that there have been no “women equivalents” to the great male artists. “We’re in a completely different world. We know about so many more female artists,” says Hessel.

Hessel writes about artists that have been overshadowed by their male relatives, partners and friends (Lee Krasner, Yoko Ono, Berthe Morisot), those who have been forgotten through the passage of time (the Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola, and the Impressionist Marie Bracquemond), and those who used “non-traditional” materials and techniques like quilt-making, pottery and embroidery.

One of Hessel’s favourite subjects is the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who died in Auschwitz at the age of 26. She painted her autobiographical work Life? Or Theatre? when she was on the run from the Nazis between 1941 and 1943. For Hessel, the immediacy of Salomon’s “graphic novel style” reflects the awful circumstances of her life, and makes her subsequent erasure from art history all the more emotional.

Hessel admits that it is difficult to write a traditional history of art split up into movements—“buzzwords that everyone knows”— when women were so often “sidelined” from them. Many women’s artistic careers were “much more fluid, much more experimental.” Hessel cites Louise Bourgeois: the artist “didn’t get any attention until 1982,” but had been working for 30 years prior. The breadth of her work is astounding: “she did painting, she did tassels, she did sewing, she did textile sculpture, everything.”

Hessel is at heart a curator, and the book coincides with an exhibition she is putting on at Victoria Miro in London, The Story of Art as it’s Still Being Written (opening 8th September). In the show is a painting that Celia Paul made in response to a work Hessel showed her: Anguissola’s Self-Portrait with Bernardino Campi (1550). Anguissola’s painting shows her as Campi’s muse; but she has subtly hinted that it is she who is in charge: she appears to be guiding his hand. In Paul’s version—“a tribute to Anguissola”—Paul is painting “a shadow of Lucian Freud,” a lover for whom she often modelled.

Hessel’s opening up of this forgotten tradition is inspiring new works by women. No doubt she will soon have enough material for a sequel.