Galleries continue to erase female artists in their best-selling exhibitions

The National Gallery recently announced its summer exhibition 2023, After , which claims that the show will celebrate the “great achievements of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Rodin” among others. The social media responses to this announcement was largely “where are the women?”

Some on suggested women who should be included in the exhibition, including , Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabriele Münter and Sonia Delaunay, just to name a few. The National Gallery twittrade same text to several of these answers: “We have announced a small number of confirmed loans for the exhibition. This includes Camille Claudel’s Imploration. We will share more loans, including larger works by female artists, closer to the opening.”

Although it remains to be seen what these works will be, it is clear that they are not considered part of the show, or a significant attraction for the public, of the gallery. If they were, they would have been mentioned back and forth in the press release.

It was accompanied by a picture of Cezanne Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), which represents a group of naked women. Clearly, the year 2022 is the easiest way for a woman to get up on the walls of the National Gallery. still by being naked.

The National Gallery is something of a standout among global museums in its continuing failure to broaden the stories it tells through its collection and exhibitions. But its focus on extremely well-known white male artists shows what it considers innovative and important – and therefore what it does not.

When women have been bestsellers

The expectation that “blockbuster” shows are about famous artists is a vicious circle – artists can not become famous names if they are not included in large exhibitions. The lack of women in traditional art history research has led to the belief that there were simply not many, or indeed any, important female artists working in during this period, which is completely false – as the backlash on Twitter pointed out. Yet museums still do not seem to be able to get them back in the canon.

The idea that only household names sell tickets has also been repeatedly dismissed over the past decade. The best example is the New York Guggenheim 2018 exhibition by the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint’s , the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in the USA – and the first time most people who visited the show had seen or heard of her. The exhibition became the museum’s best attended show ever.

National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition 2019-20 Pre-Raphelit Sisters and the Museo del Prados show 2020-21 Uninvited guests: Episodes about women, ideology and visual arts in Spain (1833-1931) both put women at the forefront of traditionally male art movements and periods.

Both were recipients of a few criticism, largely argued that the curators had not gone far enough in centering work actually done by women, rather than just portraying them. Both performances, however, represent steps towards imagining new methods for disrupting traditional art historical narratives.

Still deplorably underrepresented in permanent collections

In the autumn and winter of 2020, the National Gallery hosted its first exhibition with a female artist. It was a retrospective of the work of the strange Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschione of the few women whose works are in the gallery’s permanent collection.

Female artists are deplorably under-represented in the permanent collections of major museums around the – they are works of art owned by museums and hung on the walls all year round, not just during special exhibitions.

The National Gallery, which has a collection of more than 2,000 works, owns only 24 works of women, who represent just eight female artists. While this relationship is remarkably bad, the National Gallery is not alone in having a profound imbalance.

The art publications Artnet and the art podcast In Other Words collaborated in 2019 analyze the representation of women in the collections of American museums. They found that between 2008 and 2018, only 14% of the work in museum exhibitions was by women and only 11% of the museum acquisitions were works by women. These acquisitions and exhibitions are strongly skewed towards modern and contemporary art.

Female artists who worked before 1900 are much less represented in museum collections. In some cases their works are in smaller museums or in private collections and in others they are untraced or lost. This makes it harder to include their work in exhibitions as it can be harder to find.

But even though women’s work has been preserved less reliably throughout history, there is still a lot of it. Museums hiding behind the excuse for a “lack” of women’s work perpetuate a lie that has been exposed by countless feminist art historians since Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 essay, Why have there not been any great female artists?

Writes 2015, art historian Griselda Pollock explained Evidence of female artists can be found “there in black and white” in exhibition and sales records during the 19th century. “This is the primary proof. It can not be contradicted. But it has been consistently ignored by 20th century art historians and museum curators of the 21st century.”

The National Gallery’s continued dependence on outdated art history is a failure of its duty as trustee of the British public’s art collection. Museums, especially those like the National Gallery that receive significant public funding, are responsible for properly communicating the history and relevance of the objects they own. They should also continue to innovate and respond to cultural changes.

A museum whose collection is less than 1% women is hardly representative of a country whose population is 50% women. Nor is it representative of an art history that, while still not offering equal opportunities for and women, certainly fostered an abundance of pioneering female artists.

Author: Eliza Goodpasture – PhD student in art history, University of York The conversation





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