The Story of Art (Without Men)
Author: Katy Hessel
Publisher: Penguin, UK
More than 50 years have passed since Linda Nochlin (b. 1931) called for a feminist art history in her essay Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists With her book The Story of Art (Without Men), British art historian Katy Hessel has now put on the agenda the possibility of an alternative art history for those marginalised by the male-dominated art history canon.
Hessel’s goal is not to create a counterfactual understanding of Western art, nor is there any inherent idea that there is a particular feminine expression within art. The book covers 500 years, and although the artist’s identities may differ from those usually encountered in an overview of this type, the linear progression is the same. For Hessel, the Western art canon, with its strong male dominance, is worth challenging. And she is not preaching to the choir. Art created by men receives more attention in collections, exhibition programs, art literature, and the art market.
I open the beautifully illustrated book with great anticipation. There should be no doubt that the book, with its consistent perspective that history has yet to be entirely told, is an important publication. Although the book’s history spans 550 pages, the story’s emphasis lies in the last 150 years.
Art literature has often preferred associating changes in the discipline with male names. In the chapter on Camille Claudel (1864-1943), who is known to have had a relationship with Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) while she was his assistant at his sculpture workshop, Hessel suggests that Claudel’s influence on Rodin is often understood to be the opposite. Who arrived first at a sculptural expression that also included movement and attempted to represent an inner life has yet to be conclusively settled. It is reasonable to view works such as Claudel’s La Valse as a far more original contribution to the development of art than as a cry for help from a spurned mistress to a male genius.
The chapter on queer art history offers a handful of artists of great interest, such as Gluck (Hannah Gluchstein, 1895-1978), with images that play with gender identity and provide space for more vulnerable aspects of humanity. When going through women’s art history (without men), questions related to gender and identity will depend on what is highlighted. In the avant-garde art scene around and after World War I, art emerged that problematised gender identity. While there is often something cool, almost classical, and at the same time naive about Gluck, where shame never seems to be far away, an artist like Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) also portrayed free-spirited female sexuality – which found expression in same-sex activity in a steamy painterly form.
Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe is without question an icon created within pop art. But Monroe was also a motif for British artist Pauline Boty (1938-66). Her painting The Only Blonde in The World was created after Monroe’s death in 1963. An exuberant figure appears to be covered by a curtain 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 emotional content – not sentimental, but more in line with contemporary pop music. The original simplicity and superficiality eventually became an idiom for complex contexts as well. To some extent, the author has also highlighted the significance of the BBC’s art program in the book Pop Goes Easel, which contributed to Boty’s visibility on the British art scene – her appearance was 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 showcased the works of 169 artists from the past decade. Of these, only 17 were women, and the concept of «international» was limited to 17 nations. This led to the formation of a feminist rebel collective called the Guerrilla Girls, who are still active and necessary today. Through text-based posters and performance art, they created political art that effectively communicated the shortcomings of the art world within their circles. Moreover, their hard-hitting, ideologically grounded art was perceived as truth-telling that had finally pulled aside the curtain of illusion.
Hessel takes her story 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 discussing the contemporary, even if we admit that the world has become relatively unclear over time. Britain’s Flora Yukhonovich’s art has a gentle 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, giving 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 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 all surrounding social structures have supported gender hegemony.
Reading Hessel’s The Story of Art (Without Men) makes us understand that art history withstands an audit for our own good. Seen in isolation, many female artists over the past 500 years remind us 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.