Art history is fine without men

At the current exhibition creeps in the Rijksmuseum is a curious object from 1688. It is a wooden version of a hood, a kind of cloak that falls from the wearer’s head. The thing is topped by a large toad and decorated with a string of snakes, rats, lizards and more toads. At the front of the object is a wooden bench for someone to sit on. The sign reads: ‘Prostitutes and adulterous women – never men – were chained in this wooden colossus and driven through town on an open wagon for all to mock and mock.’

Never men. The sign also mentions the creators of this scandal: carpenter Jacobus van der Hoeven and painter Ambrosius Visscher. Well men.

The helmet of shame casts a shadow all the way from the Philips wing to the museum’s hall of fame, where women in the same century pour milk, sell bread, store linen, fetch water, deloupe, mend, scrub, pour, sing, play the lute, to a seated the table with her husband, allowing herself to be touched, holding a fan, reading a letter, all very obediently within the beautiful settings captured by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jan Steen et al. After all, no one wants to end up on that wagon with the rats and snakes spat on and mocked and finally banned.

Whore, maid, lady, we are back to history and art. There were no other flavors, unless it was the angry swan that Jan Asselijn had blown away around 1650. That swan is the wildest woman in the hall of fame, she stands there like a boxer with outstretched wings and blowing mouth. Came with it. Better that than a toad, better that than a milkmaid or a bride.

“The permanent presentation of the Rijksmuseum gives a picture of the culture of the Netherlands through the ages,” says the museum’s website. “This story can be seen from different perspectives, such as gender. At the moment, the white heterosexual Dutch cisman’s perspective is predominant.”

Is it possible? One of the things that should change this is the ‘Women of the Rijksmuseum’ programme, led by Jenny Reynaerts, who in her own collection researches, among other things, female subjects, creators and collectors. Work made by women has always hung in the Hall of Fame for a year and a half. Now they are two portraits by Judith Leyster and a floral still life by Rachel Ruysch. It also measures how much work by women the museum holds. This is now known for the paintings and sculptures: 56 of the 5000 paintings in the Rijks collection were made by a woman, and 48 of the 1600 sculptures. That’s less than two percent of the total. The figures are in line with other major Western museums with centuries-long collections such as the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, all of which have less than five percent of women’s works in their collection, as the Guerilla Girls already indicated in 1989 on their famous work Do women have to be naked to enter the met. Museum?

without women

In art history handbooks, women fare even worse than in museums. In the first edition of Ernst Gombrich’s best-known survey of Western art history, The history of art from 1950 not a single female maker existed. Since 1994 it has been one, Käthe Kollwitz. Could it be that Gombrich did not apply?

Now there are The history of art without men, just such an overview as Gombrich wrote about Western art history, but without men. They are in it, drinking, riding, cycling, shaking their fists while their heads are chopped off, lying naked on a couch. But for once they are the model, not the creator. The artists in this book are all women. No Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Manet, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Pollock, Hockney and Hirst, but Van Hemessen, Anguissola, Peeters, Gentileschi, Valadon, Höch, Krasner, Mendieta, Pindell and Mehretu.

Chances are that most readers will know all the names from the first row and perhaps none from the second. And that while Catharina van Hemessen in 1548 was the first – woman or man – to paint a self-portrait in front of an easel, as the critic Jennifer Higgie shows in her studio. The mirror and the palette. And that while Clara Peeters managed to sneak innumerable self-portraits into her still lifes around 1615, her face was reflected in the glare of a cup or glass, sometimes up to five times in one still life, a genre that, according to men, was more suited to women than portraits or history paintings. . A painting by Van Hemessen has just been restored and has recently been on display in the Rijksmuseum. Clara Peeters had an exhibition in the Prado in Madrid in 2016, as the first woman ever.

Why did we not or hardly know these artists before? Catharina van Hemessen was reportedly a celebrity in her lifetime. After this, she is quickly forgotten, as has happened to many more once famous women.

Katy Hessel is making an attempt to change that. She blows away the dust like a swan. Hessel, who previously had the Instagram account and the podcast The great female artists started in the Renaissance with Properzia de Rossi, a sculptor from Bologna, and ends in the present with Somaya Critchlow, a black artist from London whose paintings go back to the old masters. In between, she manages to go through almost every movement, almost every -ism that art history has known. But then with women in the lead role, which luckily for her is a broad term that can include anything. With woman it should be like with blue (which probably rhymes with reason), a color with infinite shades, a spectrum without hard boundaries.

Men are only mentioned indirectly in the overview. Andy Warhol, for example, is in the book, but only because Alice Neel painted him. Even as ‘man of’ men do not appear in it. The abstract expressionist Elaine de Kooning, for example, was married to the much more famous abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, but he did not enter. The most famous fact about Dora Maar is that she was a mistress of Picasso and that she is depicted in his series of paintings La Femme qui pleure. IN The history of art without men Dora Maar is a photographer who took surreal images and was a pioneer in street photography. Point.

Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, who often presented imprints in the soil of her body as art, fell from the window of their New York apartment in 1985 after an argument with her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Andre was acquitted of murder because, according to his defense, Mendieta announced his suicide on the job. Women still organize protests when Andre exhibits somewhere.

Carl Andre enters Art without men not to. Hessel writes about a performance that Mendieta performed in 1973 in response to the rape and murder of a fellow student at the University of Iowa: “Mendieta stood there naked, bent over, drenched in blood; a raw, direct and painful reminder of the stark reality of exploitation and abuse that women still have to endure.”

Such an experiment is probably not sound, let alone conducted, but what would happen if one group of lay people were the first to read Hessel’s book and the other Gombrich’s book? Would that change their view of the canon? Could the whole idea of ​​a cannon be abolished?

After all, a canon is a form of indoctrination and initiation: you must find this beautiful and good. This is beautiful and good. Eternal beauty is called Gombrich’s book in Dutch. Eternal, God-given and so natural, the second-rate position of the woman, the whore, the maid, the lady who, since the Middle Ages, could become an artist, especially if she was the daughter or husband of a male artist. This was true for Catharina van Hemessen in the sixteenth century, for Artemisia Gentileschi in the seventeenth century, for Elisabeth Vigée-le Brun in the eighteenth century, and Rosa Bonheur in the nineteenth century. This was even true in the twentieth century, when women were finally allowed to attend art schools and even paint nudes from models.

Hessel also has an eye for the position of black women. She praises Judy Chicago’s The dinner party from 1979, which consists of a table set with the names of 39 exceptional women, including Christine de Pisan, Artemisia Gentileschi and Georgia O’Keeffe. There was only room for one black woman, the anti-slavery activist Sojourner Truth. But Hessel also mentions the response to this iconic work by Patricia Kaersenhout, who is one of the few contemporary artists working in the Netherlands, who appears in the book alongside Marlene Dumas and Ellen Gallagher. Kaersenhout made a new table in 2019, Guess who’s coming to dinner tooto which women of color were invited, such as activist and drag queen Marsha P. Johnson and Haitian revolutionary Sanité Bélair.

The history of art without men appears 51 years after the publication of Linda Nochlin’s article Why haven’t there been any great female artists?, the feminist art critic’s original text from 1971. Last year, an anniversary edition of the article was published in book form. Nochlin also wrote a new essay to accompany it, urging feminist art historians to continue pushing boundaries, going against the grain, not to please but to annoy. Swans. Or apricots. Anything better than toads and milk, snakes and brides.

Therefore, we end with a recipe. It is the first English text on art written by an artist. On August 14, 1663, Mary Beale writes how she thinks apricots should be ground. Nothing more and nothing less. Confident and convinced. Of course, it should be noted that no one knows what kind of ocher Bury Ocher is anymore. The word is up to Mary Beale:

‘Let the highlights of very ripe apricots be lead white and pale lead yellow and a little massicot; in less mature specimens less or no red. Let the shades be pink & crimson and Bury ocher & in places where life requires a little fine Ultramarine. Under no circumstances should buried ocher be missing when painting apricots, because it gives a naturalness to the appearance of the fruit and makes the rest of the colors work much better. The apricots I painted before I used Bury ochre, were much harder colored and nothing quite so soft.’

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