So how do you judge what makes a Great Woman Artist?
In our new book, Great Women Artists, editor Rebecca Morrill recalls one key feminist text and its repercussions
Great Women Artists is not the first book to view art history through the prism of gender. The book’s commissioning editor, Rebecca Morrill traces similar titles back as far as 1361, with the publication of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus (‘Concerning Famous Women’).
However, she says, there is one key text that really framed the way we look at female artistic production: Feminist art historian Linda Nochlin’s celebrated 1971 essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’
“In this essay, Nochlin encouraged her colleagues to rethink their approach to unearthing forgotten female artists,” writes Morrill. “She stated that while women artists could be ‘interesting and very good’ none were ‘supremely great’ and to understand why, she urged consideration of what prevented women from attaining the same standard of greatness as their male peers.”
“She argued that the institutions by which artists historically came to be educated and promoted had actively excluded women, and that this was because of the patriarchal ideologies out of which such institutions were created and whose needs they served to uphold.
She further suggested that the notion of ‘greatness’ itself, which one might consider a neutral given, was itself a cultural construct, and for women artists, a vicious circle. Nochlin highlighted how the long-held art-historical ranking system by which different genres of painting were valued – ‘history painting’ (scenes from history, religion or mythology) being the highest, followed respectively by portraiture, genre (domestic scenes), landscape and still life – had the effect of excluding women from greatness, as they were denied access to the study of the nude figure via life classes, absolutely essential training for those aspiring to the highest status genre.
“Her overall thesis is summarized in the much-quoted line: The arts, as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”
Of course, not everyone agreed with Nochlin’s argument. “What Nochlin did not address, however, was the possibility that perceptions of ‘greatness’ in art could shift in time and space, rather than being fixed in perpetuity, and that there could be multiple definitions of greatness in existence at once,” writes Morrill. “What is considered great in one era may not be valued in another. What is cherished and celebrated in one culture is not so highly prized elsewhere. If greatness is not inherent to art itself, but rather imposed upon it – in the eye of the beholder and through his institutions – then, rather than getting caught up in debates about whether any historical woman artist can ever be as ‘great’ as the Old Masters, perhaps it is more meaningful to put aside the idea of a single, fixed standard and consider that there is a multiplicity of ways in which art can be appreciated and valued, depending in particular on who is looking.
“Nochlin’s essay continues to divide feminist art scholars as to whether effort should be spent researching – and reattributing – art by women within the dominant (male) canon, or whether, once the obstacles women faced in pursuing an artistic career are taken into account, their art needs to be judged by other criteria, despite the risk that the latter approach implies some universal ‘feminine essence’ uniting their work.
“Artists themselves, particularly those whose careers commenced after the late nineteenth century – once routes to becoming a professional artist became more open to women – have often resisted their work being categorized in relation to their own sex for fear of being ghettoized or belittled. In 1976, Georgia O’Keeffe refused to lend a painting for the exhibition ‘Women Artists: 1550–1950’, curated by Nochlin, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is said to have stated that she didn’t want to be known as a great woman artist, but as a ‘great artist, period’. Similarly, in 1990, Dorothea Tanning rejected the term ‘woman artist’, saying, ‘It’s just as much a contradiction in terms as “man artist” or “elephant artist”.’ Artists generally consider themselves as more connected to their contemporary creative peers – male and female – than to any kind of universal womanhood that stretches across time and place.”
So should the ‘women’ be dropped altogether? Not just yet, argues Morrill. Though you’ll have to buy the book to find out why she thinks so! You can order your copy of Great Women Artists here to do so!